Poor John Roberts. His feelings are hurt. And he wants big bully Barack Obama to stop picking on him.
Poor John Roberts. Apparently, he’s been nursing a grudge ever since Jan. 27 when President Obama used his State of the Union address to single out the Supreme Court for criticism over its decision on corporate financing of political campaigns. “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,” Obama told assembled members of Congress. “Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”
At which point, most members of Congress leapt to their feet in applause, while members of the court sat in stunned silence – except for Samuel Alito, who shook his head while muttering the words “Not true.” Well, at least he didn’t shout out: “You lie!”
At the time, Roberts did not say a word. But he seized the opportunity this week to fire back when speaking to the University of Alabama Law School. Responding to a student’s question, Roberts unloaded on Obama. While acknowledging that criticism of the court is fair game, he insisted that the State of the Union was neither the appropriate time nor place. “The image of having the members of one branch of government stand 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.”
The chief justice even went so far as to suggest that members of the court might stay home next year and watch the speech on television: “To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we’re there.”
No sooner had his salvo hit the wires than the Obama White House, knowing a good fight when they see one, fired back. In a statement to reporters, press secretary Robert Gibbs ridiculed Roberts’ complaint: “What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections – drowning out the voices of average Americans.”
And so the battle was joined between the president of the United States (POTUS) and the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) – or, as some have pointed out, between the president and Republican members of the court, also known as SCROTUS. It’s a battle John Roberts should never have started, because it’s a battle he’s sure to lose.
Even though members of the Supreme Court enjoy a lifetime appointment, they are not divine nor perfect and are certainly not immune to criticism. Ever since Thomas Jefferson tangled with John Marshall over the power of the court to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress, the court and sitting justices have been fair game for complaint. Conservatives never hesitate to condemn the court over Roe v. Wade. Why should liberals hesitate over campaign finance?
As for Roberts’ threat to boycott next year’s speech … who cares? In January 2000, not one member of the court showed up for Bill Clinton’s final State of the Union address – not even Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the two members he had appointed. And their absence was scarcely noted by the media. Only the New York Times made note of the fact, under the headline: “Alas, Justices All Absent and No Truant Officers.”
If Roberts didn’t want any criticism of the court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, he should have thought twice before engineering such a dangerous body blow to American politics. As the case originally came before the court, it dealt only with funding for a long-forgotten 2008 campaign documentary. But Roberts insisted that the court, instead, review the entire sweep of campaign-financing law. The result was the court’s absurd ruling that giant corporations, even foreign corporations, have the same free-speech rights as average citizens – and are therefore free to donate unlimited funds to political candidates.
Citizens United is not only bad law, it’s a classic case of judicial activism for which John Roberts is singularly responsible – and which Congress is certain to overrule. In the meantime, Roberts should just sit down and shut up.