John Roberts, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court today attacked President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, in a deepening row over the use of money power to influence politics in Washington.
Speaking at the University of Alabama, Mr. Roberts said, “Some people, I think, have an obligation to criticise what we do, given their office, if they think we’ve done something wrong. So I have no problems with that. On the other hand there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum”.
Referring to President Obama’s chiding of the Supreme Court for its decision in the Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission case, Chief Justice Roberts said, “The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering, while the Court according to the requirements of protocol, has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling”.
In a five-to-four vote the Supreme Court in January ruled that political spending by corporations in elections would be permitted, free of government bans, on the basis of protecting the First Amendment’s free speech principle.
Critics have since argued that “allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy” and that the ruling “represented a sharp doctrinal shift, and it will have major political and practical consequences”, particularly in reshaping the way elections were conducted.
During his address Mr. Obama said, “With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections,” Mr. Obama said.
He added that he didn’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. Rather they should be decided by the American people. “I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a Bill that helps correct some of these problems,” he said.
At that point Democrats and Obama staffers surrounding the six Justices present stood and applauded. The Justices, in the front and second rows of the House chamber, sat motionless and expressionless. However one Justice, Samuel Alito, appeared to be mouthing "Not true, not true," and shaking his head in disagreement.
Reacting to that incident Mr. Roberts today went on to say, “And it does cause me to think whether or not it makes sense for us to be [at the State of the Union address], to the extent that the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally. I’m not sure why we’re there.”
However the White House and Democrats reacted sharply, senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying, “Do you think John Roberts knows or cares how people get elected?” The political backlash of the row continues to pervade Washington.