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'Very troubling': Chief Justice Roberts on Obama's court criticism to joint session of Congress

March 9, 2010 |  5:16 pm

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

Some firm and unequivocal pushback today by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to President Obama's court criticism in January.

It is not at all unusual in American history for the executive branch of the federal government (the White House, under the control of either party) to disagree with the judicial branch (Supreme Court).

What is considerably more unusual is for the chief executive of the executive branch (Barack Obama) to look down on the members of said Supreme Court in public at a joint session of Congress and to their faces denounce their independent actions.

And then to receive a resounding ovation from fellow Democrats standing to applaud and cheer Obama as the surrounded justices sat mute, motionless and unable to respond.

That, of course, is what Obama did in his first State of the Union address Jan. 27, objecting to a court decision allowing corporations to donate political funds like individuals as a matter of free speech. Watch this dramatic video:


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Now, nearly six weeks later, comes a public response. Speaking today at the University of Alabama law school in Tuscaloosa, Chief Justice Roberts called the president's actions "very troubling."

Robert, who you'll recall was summoned to the White House after Obama's inaugural speech to re-administer the muffed oath of office for safety's sake, noted that the atmosphere of the State of Union has "degenerated to a political pep rally."

Speaking in response to a law student's question, Roberts said anyone could criticize the court and, indeed, our governmental system of separation of powers encourages such opinionated diversity. Then, the chief justice added:

I have no problems with that. On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum.

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.

Justices are not required to attend the annual joint sessions but have traditionally done so as a sign of mutual respect for the president and legislative branch. In January, six justices attended, including Roberts. But it sounds now like that judicial thinking might be changing.

Roberts added: "I'm not sure why we're there."

More change in the harsh tone of Washington.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Associated Press (file).

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