Barack Obama just finished up his first State of the Union address. Lots of interesting things: jobs, gays in the military, health
reform capitulation c’mon we’re so close we’ve got to do something…. Oh, and nuclear power plants are back on the agenda. CHECK YOU RADIATION LEVELS.
But the biggest legal news, at least from the perspective of your Above the Law editors, was Obama’s smackdown of the Supreme Court — while six of the nine were sitting right in front of his face.
It was so harsh that it inspired Justice Samuel Alito to shake his head and to mouth the words “not true” at the president — very reminiscent of the “you lie” moment from the last time Obama spoke in front of a joint session of Congress.
The video and additional details — plus UPDATES, including a mini-debate between Kash and Lat, and a READER POLL — after the jump.
I think I’ve watched every State of the Union since 1984. I can’t say I remember them all. But I’m pretty sure that I’ve never seen a president attack a recent Supreme Court decision quite like Obama did tonight. Obviously, Obama’s ire was focused on the Citizens United decision.
Near the end of the first hour, Obama started talking about the deficit of trust between the people and the government. I expected the usual “lobbyists bad, fire bad” rhetoric. But then Obama added a little flair. Through the magic of TiVo, I was able to take down what he said:
It’s time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office. With all due deference to separation of powers, 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.
[Pause for applause.]
I don’t think that American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse by foreign enemies; they should be decided by the American people. And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct … some of these problems.
Check out the video via Politico. You’ll see Alito’s very candid opinion of Obama’s remarks:
In general SCOTUS was … umm … not pleased with POTUS. If I may editorialize, Roberts had a stone-faced look, which reeked of a “oh, what a pity there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.” Sotomayor was looking off to the side, as if trying to hide a smile — or maybe feeling ill. And RBG, well, she’s a tough cookie, I hope she feels better soon.
I didn’t see Scalia, but I assume he was chomping at the bit when Obama said “pass a law.” In his world, that’s what is supposed to happen.
Still, it is exceedingly rare for a President to “defer” to separation of powers, and then smack up the Court in the middle of the State of the Union.
Of course, FDR-esque Court packing doesn’t seem to be Obama’s style. I can’t imagine any of the six Justices sitting there really cared about what the President said. But if there’s another opening any time soon, you can best believe that Citizens United will be a brand-new litmus test for would-be justices.
UPDATE (11:45 PM):
KASHMIR: There’s another side to this. SCOTUS doesn’t look smug to me. The justices look horribly uncomfortable. Obama is applauded for being smooth, but this was ugly. “With all due respect to the separation of powers… I am now going to smack the judicial branch upside the head.”
LAT: I can’t believe I’m (kinda) siding with Obama over the Supreme Court, given my usual leanings — but I see things differently, Kash. I agree that it was a bit — well, tacky — for Obama to call out the Court like that, and to make them sit there like chastened schoolchildren while everyone around them stood and applauded. But in the separation of powers, each branch gets to use its powers as it sees fit, to push back against and check the other branches. Tonight was a good illustration of that.
As the executive, Obama has the power of the bully pulpit. He can express disagreement with the Court’s rulings, even to the justices’ faces; that’s his prerogative. And that’s what he did in this evening’s speech.
As (life-tenured) members of the judiciary, the justices can respond by ignoring him, in effect saying: “You might not like some of our decisions, but there’s really not a darn thing you can do about it. Does Justice Alito mouthing ‘not true’ violate the Good Behavior Clause? No; the justice from the Garden State is just kicking it Jersey Shore style. So, suck our gavels.”
UPDATE (11:50 PM):
What do you think of what went down at tonight’s State of the Union? Take our (admittedly vague and unscientific) poll:
Justice Alito’s ‘You lie’ moment? [Politico]