Alito v. Obama

Reactions split on Obama's remark, Alito's response at State of the Union

The Washington Post's Robert Barnes explains what happened between the president and the Supreme Court during the State of the Union speech Wednesday night.
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

President Obama called out the Supreme Court. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. winced at the accusation and muttered, "Not true." And then official Washington and the legal community went to the tape, and examined it frame by frame.

What they saw -- either a president gratuitously criticizing the silent black-robed justices sitting in front of him or a conservative jurist injudiciously reacting to a man who had voted against his confirmation -- depended on from where they started.

"Rude," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said of the president. "Inappropriate" was the verdict on Alito from Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.).

And legal experts said they had never seen anything quite like it, a rare and unvarnished showdown between two political branches during what is usually the careful choreography of the State of the Union address.

"I can't ever recall a president taking a swipe at the Supreme Court like that," said Lucas A. Powe Jr., a Supreme Court expert at the University of Texas law school. The closest precedent most could find was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's criticism of the court in his 1937 address to Congress.

Roll Wednesday night's tape.

Obama was near the end of his speech when he turned his attention to the court's decision last week in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The ruling overturned two precedents and left corporations free to use their profits to support or oppose political candidates.

"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," Obama said.

"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 I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems."

Democratic lawmakers and Obama Cabinet members, surrounding the six of nine justices who turned out for the event, stood and applauded.

The justices, in the front and second rows of the House chamber, sat motionless and expressionless. Except for Alito.

"Not true, not true," he appeared to say (other lip readers think he said, "That's not true") as he shook his head and furrowed his brow. It is unclear what part of Obama's statement he was objecting to, although he started shaking his head after the president said "special interests."

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