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Published: Tuesday, 3/16/2010

The chief justice objects

U.S. CHIEF Justice John Roberts presides over one of the most closeted and insular institutions in the nation. He and his fellow Supreme Court justices send down their legal thunderbolts like Zeus from Mount Olympus unto the world beneath.

That is why Justice Roberts' pronouncement that President Obama's first State of the Union address was "very troubling" is so unpersuasive. Among us mortals, being told the plain truth about job performance is considered normal.

Justice Roberts was right in saying that State of the Union addresses have "degenerated into a political pep rally," but that was true long before Mr. Obama entered the White House. The nation has come a long way since President George Washington simply sent a statement to Congress.

The President apparently offended Mr. Roberts in January by voicing the concerns of many Americans: "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."

In speaking to students at the University of Alabama, Justice Roberts said he wasn't opposed to criticism of the court. But, he said, "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."

Not entirely expressionless, because the decorum-less Justice Samuel Alito was seen to mouth the words: "Not true."

But the State of the Union address is what it is - a political pep rally, perhaps, but also a grand ceremonial occasion in the life of the Republic, which all members of Congress, Cabinet appointees, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, yes, the Supreme Court ought to attend as a matter of duty.

Why should presidents speak pap because this has been a night of pomp and political circumstance? Mr. Obama didn't think so - and he was right.

The ruling in the campaign finance case was preposterous. The majority could have ruled on narrow grounds, but went out of its way in a fit of right-wing judicial activism to hold that corporations have First Amendment rights similar to those of ordinary citizens.

The gods of the Supreme Court needed to hear about that.



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