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‘Not true’: Justice Alito vs. Obama

In his State of the Union address, President Obama chastised a half-dozen Supreme Court justices seated just yards away for the recent campaign-finance ruling.

“Thank you, Justice Alito,” said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post. In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama chastised a half-dozen Supreme Court justices seated just yards away for the recent campaign-finance ruling that will, in Obama’s words, “open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.” After this “firm but respectful rebuke,” cameras captured Justice Samuel Alito shaking his head and mouthing the words “not true.” It was eye-opening for a justice to react so personally in public, but Alito’s “honest reaction” served a valuable purpose. Can we now end the pretense that the Supreme Court’s conservative activists are dispassionate jurists, merely interpreting the Constitution without an agenda or a bias? Alito and fellow partisans Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts have proved they will strike down laws and ignore precedent to remake the country to their own preferences.

If anyone embarrassed himself here, said former Georgia congressman Bob Barr in AJC.com, it was the president. Justices attend the State of the Union as a gesture of goodwill and respect. For Obama to use this occasion to attack them was a “truly unprecedented display of incivility.” Besides, said Linda Greenhouse in NYTimes.com, Alito was right. Obama said the court had “reversed a century of law” in its decision, but that is indeed “not true.” The century-old law banning corporations from contributing directly to campaigns was not an issue in the Citizens United case, and is “still on the books.” The court struck down more recent laws, banning corporate spending on partisan TV ads.

“Have we really gotten so squeamish?” said Jonathan Chait in The New Republic. Legal scholars can argue whether Alito or Obama is right on the facts—and it is true that U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations can now spend unlimited sums to influence elections. But to chastise Alito for quietly muttering to himself is surely taking “prudishness to a new extreme.” Yes, the court is supposed to be politically neutral, said Paul Campos in TheDailyBeast.com, and, yes, the president is therefore supposed to refrain from criticizing court rulings, but “all this is nonsense.” The Supreme Court is a deeply political body, more so than ever, and everyone on both the Left and the Right knows it. That we suppress honest and healthy political confrontations in the name of decorum “is a rather sad comment on the state of the union.”

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