It's Obama vs. the Supreme Court, Round 2, over campaign finance ruling

In remarks during a question-and-answer session with law students at the University of Alabama, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. protested the timing of President Obama's State of the Union disapproval of the court's decision in a major campaign finance case.
By Robert Barnes and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

President Obama and the Supreme Court have waded again into unfamiliar and strikingly personal territory.

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told law students in Alabama on Tuesday that the timing of Obama's criticism of the court during the State of the Union address was "very troubling," the White House pounced. It shot back with a new denouncement of the court's ruling that allowed a more active campaign role for corporations and unions.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats followed up with pointed criticism of Roberts, and at a hearing on the decision, a leading Democrat said the American public had "rightfully recoiled" from the ruling.

The heated rhetoric has cast the normally cloistered workings of the court into a very public spotlight. Democrats hope to make the decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission part of their strategy to portray the conservative justices as more protective of corporate interests than of average Americans.

A Democratic strategist who works with the White House said the fight is a good one for Obama, helping lay the groundwork for the next Supreme Court opening. "Most Americans have no idea what the Supreme Court does or how it impacts their lives," the strategist said. "This decision makes it crystal clear."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) opened the hearing on the ruling Wednesday by declaring that "the Citizens United decision turns the idea of government of, by and for the people on its head." The committee's ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions (Ala.), countered that Obama and Democrats are mischaracterizing the ruling for political gain.

"There has been too much alarmist rhetoric that has been flying around since this decision," Sessions said, advising his colleagues not to "misrepresent the nature of the decision or impugn the integrity of the justices."

The court ruled 5 to 4 in January that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to use their general treasuries and profits to spend freely on political ads for and against specific candidates. The court overturned its own precedents and federal law in the decision, which was hailed by conservatives and a few liberals as a victory for free political speech, and was denounced by Obama, who said in his State of the Union address that it would lead to elections being "bankrolled by America's most powerful interests."

Obama's blunt criticism, while six black-robed justices sat at the front of the House chamber, set off a round of public debate about whether he was both wrong and rude, or whether Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. violated judicial custom by silently mouthing "not true" while the president was speaking.

Presidential historians said that while other presidents have criticized Supreme Court decisions or called upon Congress to remedy them, Obama's was the most pointed and direct criticism in a State of the Union address since President Franklin D. Roosevelt took on the court for blocking his programs.

An issue of 'decorum'

Round 2 began Tuesday, when Roberts spoke at the University of Alabama law school. He did not mention Citizens United in his speech and declined to answer a question about criticism of the ruling.

But when asked whether the State of the Union address was the "proper venue" in which to "chide" the Supreme Court, Roberts did not hesitate.

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