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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.

"First of all, anybody can criticize the Supreme Court without any qualm," he said, adding that "some people, I think, have an obligation to criticize what we do, given their office, if they think we've done something wrong."

He continued: "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."

The White House struck back quickly -- not at Roberts's point, but at the decision. "What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections -- drowning out the voices of average Americans," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. "The president has long been committed to reducing the undue influence of special interests and their lobbyists over government. That is why he spoke out to condemn the decision."

'People disagree'

White House officials said the debate helps underscore differences between the president and the conservative court and puts into relief what will be at stake when there is another opening on the bench. There is speculation that Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 90 next month, will retire at the end of this term.

At a time when the administration is struggling to prove that it can work across political lines on a health-care overhaul and other matters, Obama officials insisted they were not seeking a partisan fight with the court. Yet they acknowledged that a debate over campaign finance fed into Obama's central campaign promise of transparency and reform. "This is really about the president's change agenda," a White House official said.

"This is the functioning of democracy at its highest," the official said. "People disagree, they discuss, they debate."

Administration officials did not question whether Roberts's comments were appropriate, noting that he had replied to a question.

But the fracas is the kind the justices usually like to avoid. Justice Clarence Thomas told a Florida law school audience last month that the controversy reinforced his decision to skip the State of the Union address. "One of the consequences is now the court becomes part of the conversation, if you want to call it that," he said. ". . . It's just an example of why I don't go."

Roberts, who has attended the event since joining the court in 2005, indicated at the Alabama event that he may now agree with Thomas.

"To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there," he said.

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