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Supreme Court: The case of Roberts v. Obama

Chief Justice John Roberts quietly absorbed President Obama's barbed comments during the State of the Union speech, but at a recent gathering with University of Alabama law students he said he found the incident "very troubling."

Now it’s “personal,” said Robert Barnes and Anne Kornblut in The Washington Post. At his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama denounced the Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling to lift limitations on corporate funding of election ads. Six of the justices were sitting uncomfortably in front of him. As Democrats applauded and cheered, Obama said the ruling would let “America’s most powerful interests” run roughshod over elections, prompting Justice Samuel Alito to shake his head and mouth the words “not true.” Now, Chief Justice John Roberts has entered the fray, saying in a speech to University of Alabama law students last week that the president’s behavior was “very troubling.” Roberts objected to the setting of the criticism, with cheering congressional Democrats “literally surrounding” the justices. “To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally,” Roberts said, “I’m not sure why we’re there.”

What a “big crybaby,” said Ruth Marcus in WashingtonPost.com. “To listen to John Roberts, you’d think that mobs of pitchfork-waving Democrats” were threatening to burn the “trembling justices” at the stake. The purpose of the State of the Union address is for the president to raise important issues; in this case, Obama was simply asking Congress for a “legislative response” to a dangerous ruling, so as to limit the power of corporate cash over elections. What’s so awful about that? In several State of the Union addresses, Ronald Reagan criticized abortion and the ban on school prayer, with liberal justices seated in front of him. The Republic survived.

Still, Roberts has a point, said Jan Crawford in CBSnews.com. Since any issue raised in a State of the Union address might someday be litigated before the high court, “the justices have to sit there with their hands in their laps and their faces blank.” Obama took advantage of that fact, bullying the justices while knowing they couldn’t fight back. It may have been gratifying for Obama to get that bit of payback, said Jeff Shesol in The New York Times. But whatever political advantage he gained will likely be “short-lived.” Supreme Court justices enjoy life tenure, and one day, Obama initiatives such as health-care mandates, environmental regulations, or financial reform may come before Roberts, Alito, and the court’s other conservatives. “Justices are human,” and it never pays to start a feud with them.

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