It's rare—almost unprecedented—for the president to critique the Supreme Court during a State of the Union address. But Obama did just that last night, pointedly observing that the court's recent campaign finance decision had "reversed a century of law" and "open[ed] the floodgates" for special interest money in elections. Justice Samuel Alito's response was likewise remarkable: Alito, a conservative who voted for the decision, furrowed his brow and (with apparent annoyance) mouthed the words "Not true, not true." Pundits immediately equated his response with Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst during Obama's last congressional speech. Who, if anyone, should apologize—Obama, for openly critiquing the Court, or Justice Alito, for seemingly abandoning propriety? (See video below.)
Obama was foolish and rude: The president is well within his rights to criticize the court, says Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett at Politico. But "egg[ing] on" Congress to "jeer" at the justices while they are "seated politely before him"? The president only succeeded in "alienat[ing]" Justice Kennedy, who authored the opinion in question and is a crucial moderate swing vote on the court. Obama owes the court an apology for his "shocking lack of decorum."
"State of the Union: How did he do?"
Obama won the night: Kudos to the president for "having the nerve to ... criticize the conservative justices to their faces" for their irresponsible decision, says Jeffrey Rosen at The New Republic. "If the justices don't take the criticism to heart, they're headed toward a full-blown confrontation with the White House and Congress" over their misguided campaign finance judgment—and that's a war the Supreme Court is guaranteed to lose. Alito shouldn't be picking a fight he can't win.
"Obama's war with the Court-just-escalated"
Alito's conduct was much worse than Joe Wilson's: "There's a reason that Supreme Court Justices never ... express any reaction" at political events, says Glenn Greenwald at Salon. Their job requires them to be "apolitical." By turning himself into "a partisan sideshow," Alito is perpetuating the trend by which "right-wing justices" are undermining the Supreme Court by inserting themselves "ever more aggressively" into politics. By comparison, Joe Wilson, as a congressman, is allowed to be political, even if rudely.
"Judge Alito's conduct and the Court's credibility"
This is why Americans are cynical: "We have a problem" in this country, says Fox News commentator Sarah Palin, when the president and a Supreme Court justice start turning the State of the Union into a spitting match. Why did the president choose to "embarrass" the Supreme Court and disrespect "the separation of powers" by issuing such dubious accusations? Sadly, this feud was the night's "huge takeaway moment."
"Justice Alito wasn't happy with Obama's speech"
SEE MORE OF THE WEEK'S STATE OF THE UNION COVERAGE:
• State of the Union: Grading Obama
• Corporate money: Bad for politics?
• Supreme Court ruling: Pro-GOP?
• Punishing Joe Wilson
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- What the Middle Ages can tell us about the GOP's big charity myth
- Why is the Pentagon stuffing caves in Norway full of tanks?
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- The one thing the New Atheists get right about religion
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Syrian women know how to defeat ISIS
- The uncomfortable truth in The Giving Tree
- 5 baffling foreign-language versions of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song
Subscribe to the Week