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

By Robert Barnes and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; A01

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.

"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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