Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Obama, the grumpy chief justice and cake -- March 11, 2010 column


First, President Barack Obama scolded the Supreme Court in his State of the Union Address. Then, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested that the annual address has “degenerated into a political pep rally,” and he might stop attending.

Sounds like it’s time for another “beer summit” at the White House.

Last summer, Obama invited a black Harvard historian and a white Boston police officer to talk over glasses of Sam Adams and Blue Moon. Maybe the president should invite Roberts to the White House – but the refreshment of choice could be birthday cake.

Yes, birthday cake. Overlooked in the news coverage of Roberts’ remarks is a personal detail that may help explain his ruffled feathers. Obama’s State of the Union address took place on Jan. 27. That was John Roberts’ birthday. He turned 55.

It’s not hard to imagine the chief justice feeling grumpy as he put on his black robes that Wednesday night. The State of the Union gives the president an hour or so in prime time to pitch his legislative goals before a joint session. Members of Congress turn it into partisan theatre with their high-spirited whoops, cheers and jeers. Front and center throughout are the Supreme Court justices, sitting impassively.

Justices like to think of themselves and the court as apolitical. That’s a fiction, of course, but it’s their fiction. Being a justice must be the best job in government. It’s a lifetime appointment, and they answer to no one. There are no TV cameras in the courtroom, so most Americans don’t know what justices do or even what they look like. Occasionally, a high-profile case grabs people’s attention, but the justices remain distant

Roberts may have thought he had better ways to spend his birthday than making a cameo walk-on appearance on the undignified political stage.

As he later described it, the scene was uncomfortable even before Obama said of the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, “With all due deference to the separation of powers, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections.”

At that, Justice Samuel Alito shook his head and seemed to say, “not true.” The chief justice and the four other justices just sat.

On Tuesday, Roberts was at the University of Alabama law school in Tuscaloosa when someone asked during a Q&A whether the State of the Union address was the “proper venue” for the president to chide the court.

Roberts said anyone can criticize the court at any time and “some people have an obligation to criticize what we do, given their office, if they think we’ve done something wrong.”

But, he went on, “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.”

Roberts didn’t pick the fight. He didn’t bring up the State of the Union in his lecture, and he declined to answer a question about the Citizens United case. Nor did he mention his birthday.

Chosen by President George W. Bush, Roberts joined the court two days after his 50th birthday in 2005. He attended Bush’s State of the Union addresses, none of which fell on Jan. 27.

People often say that turning 50 gives them the freedom to say no to things they don’t want to do.

“I’m not sure why we’re there,” Roberts said about the State of the Union speeches. Justice Antonin Scalia already ducks them.

Tradition is a large part of it. Aside from presidential inaugurations, the State of the Union is one of the rare times the three branches of government gather. The picture from the House chamber every year is a reassuring tableau of the unity of government, even if the event itself is more of a show.

The world would not end if Roberts and other justices stayed home. But it would be another sign that the government is fractured. Bring on the birthday cake summit.

(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Most interesting and useful. Perhaps an annual "beer summit" for the justices and the president, alternating between the White House and the Supreme Court chambers, would be a useful substitute for the justices attending the State of the Union. I worry when I see the three branches of government all in one place -- given the terrorist threat these days.