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

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:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

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).

Comments () | Archives (32)

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I can sum the experience up in two words: "No class." It reminds me of Michelle Obama's comment that she has never been proud of her country, until Barrack Obama ran for president. What's all that about? If you don't like the country you are living in, and you have the money, move. The Obama's haven't done a very good job of disguising their hatred for white America, with Barrack calling whites gun toting, religion clinging people, calling the police stupid, and pulling out all the stops to uncover the Swiss bank accounts, and Cayman Island accounts of a class of people he despises. He can hardly go one day without venting his envy, and jealousy toward the rich wall street bankers. It must be hell living with that kind of constant hatred brewing inside him.

am 85 years old and thank goodness I was young at the right time in America.
What I hear on the news channels is vicious and down right hateful. When President Roosevelt spoke you could hear a pin drop. The country was together and needless to say worshiped him. The first amendment has been so abused. One of our newscasters has made a career of trying to destroy Mr. Obama.

Mr. Lumbaugh has made a career out of trying to bring down any democratic president. The republicans have made him very rich because they are so grateful to him for his shoddy comments about our presidents. They were so grateful to Linda Tripp that they paid for her plastic urgery. I ask you what kind of people are these?

This is a great country but I am worried about us. I am just glad that I am in the twilight of life rather than being young. God knows what our young people are going have to face.

Thank you for letting me vent a little. I could go on and on but that might be quite boring to others.

I felt that Obama's criticism of the Supremes while they were sitting in front of him was a despicable act of a political bully. And I don't care if it was a Republican or Democrat that did that, it was wrong.

When we lose a sense of decorum and manners we become barbarians. It then becomes a matter of “I’m up and you’re down” and let me kick you.

Obama is assured one place in History, the President that made it impossible for the Supreme Court Justices to sit and listen to ANY President SOU speeches.

But I guess, “It’s the Chicago Way”.

I watched Joe McCarthy on a 7 inch TV in the 1950’s bully and demean anyone who opposed him.

President Obama, Do you have any shame!

David E. Connolly, Jr. jealousy is hard to control as your statements indicate. Racism is a live, and well in your statements.

Criticize him if he says it to your face or criticize him if he says it behind your backs. Or why not just have it both ways? The supreme court made a supremely bad decision and deserves public and private criticism.

re: Marcelle C. Crow
Let's substitute "Bush" for "Obama," "Olbermann" for "Lumbaugh," (sic) "Democrats" for "Republicans," and "the entire MSM" for "one of our newscasters," etc. You get the idea. Were you bothered then? I thought not.

Look, President Obama showed his inexperience and arrogance at the State of the Union address. It's getting wearying and the natives are indeed getting restless. I, for one, am getting very tired of the constant demonization of various segments of our society. STOP CAMPAIGNING AND START LEADING, MR. PRESIDENT!!!

It seems to me that he's not criticizing President Obama's State of the Union but the precedent that justices are supposed to attend and sit in silence while everyone else is reacting to the speech. I guess you are just recapping the AP story, which sets it up to sound like he's trashing Obama, but this just seems really misleading. But maybe I'm misinterpreting it because I don't have the full context of having been there or reading a transcript; I just see the way the AP pulled choice quotations and bent them into something sensationalist. Roberts is just being candid; it's nothing to sound alarms about.

I am surprised no one is troubled by a judge criticising the president and making a media circus out of it. A judge should show more restraint. His idea that he must fight back proves his hubris. His war with the Whitehouse is nothing more than a reflection of his polarized politics, that are reflected in his decisions. Politics are fine in the Whitehouse, but I would hope the judges are appointed for their wisdom and not their ability to deliver party line rhetoric to the media. His attack on Obama is just one more layer of the Republican assualt with an eye on the next election.

I'd hardly call that decision by SCOTUS an "independent action." If the Supreme Court acts politically, as it did in that case, it should be fair game for them to get called out on it. They can't make blatantly political decisions and then try to hide behind their robes.

Justice Roberts doesn't have a contractual agreement so he's free to leave anytime he wishes. until then, he may as well take the criticism in stride. perhaps he should reflect on the fact that not just the President is at odds with their decision that is the root of the disagreement.

You can dress him up but you can't take him out to dinner.

If Obama & the Democrats really wanted to create millions jobs, Raise our standard of living, Increase tax collections by billions, Improve our Medical care while decreasing costs, Decrease crime, save 100,s of billions in welfare, Improve our schools while decreasing cost, Provide billions more to simulate the economy etc. etc. all they have to do is Abide by our Constitution against Invasion, Enforce our Immigration Laws & and Honor their Oath of Office!

Meantime, with 15 million Americans without jobs, & Millions more working temporary & part time jobs, The invasion continues. No Liberal Politician will address the 500 pound gorilla in the room, and millions of invading, plundering, welfare loving, prolific breeding, Illegal Aliens taking millions of jobs that should be American jobs and 100,s billions of dollars in social services that should be for American citizens while driving our standard of living down by estimated 250 billion per year!

One cannot be political correct and admit that Illegal Aliens are an large part of the problems in this Nation.

Their negative impact extends to every area from Sub-par loans & defaults, Underground economy, Massive document fraud, Lower standard of living, Crime, Overflowing prisons , Bankrupted hospitals, Failing schools, Property Taxes, Insurance costs, Environment, Culture, Welfare costs, Welfare fraud, SS fraud, Voter fraud, Disrespect for our laws & country, our Constitution against invasion and even Balance of payments occurring from oil and other imports to support the 20 to 30 million illegal aliens in this country!

One has to only look at Calif. which is basically mostly an Spanish speaking, Bankrupt state that cannot afford to provide Welfare, Schooling, Medical, Prison cells etc. for millions of MS-13 Gang bangers, Drug dealers, Rapist and other assorted Criminals and uneducated, Prolific breeding, third world Parasites from South of the border!

In a very few years it will be impossible to see where Mexico ends and Calif. begins as both will be an third world cesspool!

Failure to secure our borders and reward the Invading horde for their invasion and their relatives in an never ending chain with American Citizenship is nothing less than committing National Suicide & will assure our future is an over populated Spanish speaking third world Nation that is an Cesspool of Corruption, Crime, Poverty and Misery modeled on Mexico!

How ironic, if not duplicitous, that the Chief Justice who heads a right leaning Supreme Court whose majority has shown more partisan political bias than any other (e.g. Bush's stolen election over Gore), a court that HAS, in fact, just opened the floodgates allowing fat cat corporations, who tend to support the right wing, to control the political process, finds fault with the President for being too political. My only regret is that Justices Scalia and Thomas were not present to take the smack. Stevens, had he been there, might have nodded his head in agreement.

Andrew - indeed. Thank you for a straight on piece. Following the unfortunate incident, there seemed to be plenty of expert analysis, both left and right, which strongly supported the view that indeed the President of the United States' statement was not a fully truthful statement. Indeed, at best it was completely misleading on the facts of the case, and as such, served only as political rhetoric in this historic setting.

The scene of the Congress, including AG Eric Holder and administration official immediately next to the Justices, rising to their feet, literally standing over the backs of the members of our Supreme Court and applauding the inappropriate remarks by the President was a very sad sight.

Chief Roberts slight and subtle mouthing of the words, "not true," unfortunately was all that our national mainstream media took note of. Even the Los Angeles Times in covering the State of the Union Address took a stab at Justice Roberts reaction to the President's words as being the uncomfortable part of the event - not the President's actions - not the members of congress.

Thank you Andrew Malcolm for setting it a bit straight, here.

Well put, david - Obama & Co have no class, but more surprising is how brainless this was ...for Obama to attack the judiciary and the democrats to approve of it - is illustrative for anyone who cares to stomach it - of just how sleezy the democratic party has become - too many hippies running america today. One benefit of Obamacare is that their govt will make the decision to pull the plugs prematurely. Death by ones own pistol. Good for Roberts to call Obama on it.

We are all well aware of the fact that in today's world most corporations are global. With that in mind, I believe that Obama made an observation that we were all thinking, simply this: If a corporation is owned and operated by foreign powers but doing business in the United States, then those corporations can invest heavily in a candidate that would benefit their county's interests more than the interests of the United States. The polls agree with me on this.

Should such corporations be allowed to choose the President of the United States?

The Forefathers of this country and the Authors of the US Constitution were very careful to require that any person running for the President of the United States must be born on American soil. They understood that a person has lifelong ties to and roots in the country of their birth. If a person born outside of the US were to become President, it is possible that they would "sell out" the interests of the United States to help their "mother country."

When the Supreme Court allowed corporations to invest unlimited amounts of money in US elections, they have in effect "sold out" the interests of the United States to the foreign owners of those corporations.

The right-wing has proven that they support personal profits over our National interests and our National security. The Supreme Court has hurt our country deeply.

I wonder is this act is one of the so called throwing of elbows if needed President Obama has been caught in so much controversy lately and all it does it to damage his Presidency itself. He may be able to get out of the mess but he will continue to go down to history as the President who did this and that. He really has to get his acts together still

Uff!. I dont know what to say. Will ONE day ever pass during this WH Administration that isnt without some kind of scandal? Something that doesnt make us embarrased of this president, of this congress, of this WH? Im already exhausted!

I cant remember for the life of me, not even during Bush's long 2 last years that seemed to last forever, being in such a distress!

One day is a staff scandal, the next is an up-and-down rollercoaster on HC, the next insult the Supreme Court, then snub our allies, then back with more HC, then suddenly jumps to Cap and Trade only to come back to HC, and Jobs one day and next day forgotten, a d-senator who quits, another D-Rep that swichtes party, then more d-senators resigning, a truther and commie in the WH, then another scandal, I mean! WTF? If these people cant govern, they should just resign in masse and let someone else do this. It's sickening!

O is a disgrace to the country and the office. Reid, Pelosi, Schumer, et al are lying, soulless crooks and thieves. It seems now like anytime O et al open their mouths nothing buy lies. ANYONE who has read this sh** - CBO scoring of Manager's Amendment is only about 40 pp and lays out the lies - could NOT possibly be in favor of it. It's disgraceful. I'm 60 and have never seen anything like it other than Nixon.

Obama's actions in the State of the Union address were very similar to what Third World dictators have done time and again. Troubling doesn't even beginning to describe this entire Presidency let alone the speech itself.

Maybe the judges will begin to see Obama for who he is and go back and look at the constitution once again and see that the Commerce Clause has granted far to much power to the legislative branch that ultimately an arrogant President and contemptuous Congress is able usurp our rights with the tacit approval of the Supreme Court itself.

Maybe they will now see the wisdom of the founding fathers and start ruling for State's rights and allow nullification of existing federal laws and executive branch decisions before it is too late and a line is crossed.

Perhaps the SOTU is the wake-up call the justices needed to hear.

Obama's unprecedented attack on the Supreme Court and the Constitution while the Justices sat trapped in front of him was cowardly and dispicable. Chief Justice Roberts response at the unprecedented attack was mild to say the least. Since Obama can't be trusted to contain himself the solution would be for the Court to just skip State of the Union Speeches, at least while Obama is President. And so much for Obama bringing us all together with new and better politics. Even George Bush didn't achieve this level of polarization and divisiveness!!!!

Hi Marcelle,

Kudos to your 85 years of lifetime experience ;^)

I completely agree with you that our newscasters have simply gone of the deep end. They are no longer even believable. Mr. Limbaugh of course has made his career out of preaching the conservative line. This includes but is not limited to Mr. Obama.

I would also like to point out that many on the left are just as outragoues and offensive. Particularly with the use of the word "teabaggers". Why would anybody even watch them?

I am an independent voter and did not vote for Mr. Obama. Nor will I in 2012. However, many of my friends who did feel betrayed. This is not what we voted for. We voted to have the economy fixed. The economy is not fixed, it is clearly worse. People don't even have jobs and all that Obama & the liberals care about is health care and climate change. We want jobs.

This has gone to far to fix. We will not suddenly decide that we like the bill that we don't like after it is passed. We want jobs.

I think that Mr. Obama & the liberals can clearly count on having the independent voters of America standing firmly against them in 2010. A political storm such as has never been seen before is brewing and the elite liberal political class is sailing full speed ahead directly into it.

They seem hell bent on self destruction and do not care what the people who voted them into power think. I think that this will be a November to remember...

Vote 2010!

The Supreme Court justices are at the State of The Union Address as guests of the other two branches of the Federal Government. It was rude of Obama to spout ,in your face, criticism of the Court with the justices sitting right in front of him. Would anyone with any sense of decency insult an invited guest in their home? I don't think so.

Justices Roberts and Alito would have been justified if they had gotten up out of their seats and left the chamber as the President finished his comments about the Court's ruling. I'm sure that they wanted to do just that but they have a lot more class than the President and the other Democrat dirtbags that were assembled for the speach.

I can't believe so many rabid Obama-hating rightwingers even read the LA Times website! Don't they know it is a meeting place for communist subversives to meet and plan the overthrow of capitalism? Rush Limbaugh must have had a vacation day or something!
I for one, can't wait for Cheney Palin to take over in 2012 and start another war and gut another social program to pay for it. I hope they go after Medicaid and Social Security next, so that the AARP contingent can find out how to live and die on welfare of $200/mo. If anyone complains, I say we get John Woo to write a memo authorizing the waterboarding of senior citizens. Republicans 4ever!

I agree with John G. Roberts Jr. When people have class and show respect for others, they don't get others in a crowd of people then talk rude about them. That is what president Obama did to the Supreme Court. Obama thinks he is a ruler who knows it all and he decides whats best. Sorry, there's nothing good I can say about this president.

I find it shocking that supreme court would make a decision to allow corporation to be treated as citizen and right to influence elections by unlimited funds. Already our elections local or federal run into millions of dollars and politicians have become puppets to thier donors. With supreme court ruling our election are going to be much more bizarre.Our Preamble of the constituition "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." will need to changed in future to " We the corporations...." Even whole constituition will need to be changed since when all corporations promote the general Welfare.

If you are going to verbally attack someone, or a group of people, in the political arena, then at least have the courage to do it at a time when the opposition can respond. Conservatives attack Liberals yes, but the willingly accept and welcome counter attacks because they realize that the rights to speak and protest are 2 of our nation's citizens most important rights. Die hard Liberals want to speak their mind and for you to shut up if you oppose them, and be shut up by force if necessary.

As for Obama vs. Roosevelt, lets compare historical facts. In both now and then the country was tired of a liberal being president (Wilson and Clinton) and both of those presidents set us up for a future fall. Then, Republicans came to power (Coolidge and Hoover, Bush). The economic problems were made worse, and came to a climax during these two republican reigns. Then extreme Liberals (both of whom practiced Socialism) came to power (FDR, Obama). FDR committed theft by slashing the value of the dollar in half. Both are committing theft by taking from the people who have money and giving it to the people who haven't earned it. Both have drained the tax payers more and more by creating government jobs for unqualified people that result in wasted tax payer money and low quality work. In short, the policies that FDR used lengthened and deepened the depression, and Obama is only messing up this country more.

"How ironic, if not duplicitous, that the Chief Justice who heads a right leaning Supreme Court whose majority has shown more partisan political bias than any other (e.g. Bush's stolen election over Gore), a court that HAS, in fact, just opened the floodgates allowing fat cat corporations, who tend to support the right wing, to control the political process, finds fault with the President for being too political."

The decision merely allows morally upstanding organizations, like pro-life and pro-second amendment corporations to name a couple of categories to legally do exactly what the Democrat Party has been doing in the dark for quiet some time now with their donations. How else does Obama get all that money that he reported having?

Criticism is fine, but there is a proper time, place and demeanor to which it should adhere. All of that was wrong with this situation.

The truth is that the analysis and precedent synthesized in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205, the Supreme Court case referenced here, was very complicated and thought through, at length. But you can scrap all of that when the President boils it all down to an oversimplified, misguided lashing to stoke a political fever free of reason or decorum. The President didn't take issue with any specific legal analysis to which a Supreme Court Justice may respond; it was a blind and general act of skullduggery.

But what should we expect from the President in our nation's history who has the absolute LEAST experience in public service or professional experience of any other president, the president who procured election through the most stifling lack of record or credentials ever known to the office? He's got the glitter, but neither the brains nor the guts befitting our nation's highest single office, as is evidenced here.

He's simply what some people are smoking to get a little buzz and then they can forget about the practical acts required to make true gain for this country. Sure, everything to everyone all the time Mr. Obama...but HOW? and at what cost?

Most people find it difficult to follow a leader who represents little more than the inexperience and hollow arrogance that we have come to discover and expect of Obama. What a waste.

Adumanate and others:

The SOCUS decision did not, and does not, permit foreign companies, or US companies owned by foreign entities, from contributing to political campaigns or running political commercials. That is still illegal, and has been, and was not at issue in the case. Rather the issue was simply whether or not a US Corporation could spend its own money running political ads. For those opposed to this ruling, I quote the first amendment:
"Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech or of the press."

What part of "make no law" do all the people not understand?

Chief Justice Roberts needs more humility. The three branches of our Federal Government are separate but equal. Just because one branch does something another branch objects to and publically denounces it for does not permit the other to take offense to the complainant. Furthermore the Supreme Court is supposed to be the most independent branch from political influence, therefore Chief Justice Roberts should have used greater restraint than to side with Citizens United in the first place and second to complain about President Obama's calling out of him and the Supeme Court during a Joint Session of Congress. As far as I am concerned I do not care which party nominated or confirmed Chief Justice Roberts, he deserves nothing less than Impeachment for his actions.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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