Obama vs. Alito: Political dust-up during State of the Union
Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito apparently took umbrage at President Obama’s comment about the court’s recent decision on corporate campaign contributions. Was either of them out of line?
It wasn’t exactly a “You lie!” moment, reminiscent of Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst the last time the president addressed a joint session of Congress. But President Obama’s State of the Union speech this week did include an episode that has left commentators clucking over political tradition and decorum.Skip to next paragraph
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That’s when Obama needled – well, lambasted – the US Supreme Court for a recent decision he said would “open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.”
Sitting right in front of the president – robed in sober black, hands folded in their laps – were six of the justices, including three who had made it possible (in Obama’s words) for American elections to be “bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
Now, normally the justices (like the uniformed and bemedaled members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also sitting down front) express no emotion during the president’s speech – no applauding, no sniggering, no eye-rolling. That’s for the politicians packing the chamber. The judges’ and the generals’ role on this occasion is to appear serious, substantial, and above all nonpartisan.
But Obama’s mention of the campaign finance decision caused Associate Justice Samuel Alito’s expression to go dark as he shook his head and appeared to say “Simply not true.”
Clashing of legal minds
Obama was a professor of constitutional law, and Supreme Court justices are pretty smart people too. Alito went to Yale Law School, Obama to Harvard. So this was a major – and very public – clashing of legal minds. Even though Obama had ad-libbed “with all due deference to separation of powers” into his prepared text before unloading on the court, this was big-time head-butting between the Executive and Judicial branches of federal government.
Some legal authorities worry about this.