Will Chief Justice Roberts attend the State of the Union?

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Eva Rodriguez
Copyright 2011
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 10:11 AM

Sam Alito won't be there, but will John Roberts? I'm talking, of course, of the president's State of the Union Address and the question of whether Republican Supreme Court appointees will attend. You'll recall that the speech raised a stink last year when President Obama criticized the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision, describing the 5-4 ruling as having thrown out a century's worth of laws restricting corporations' campaign contributions. Obama's description was imprecise, at best; that prompted Justice Alito to shake his head and mouth the words "not true." This relatively mild exchange prompted much angst -- from those who thought Obama breached decorum by wagging a finger at the captive justices, as well as those who thought Alito's reaction was inappropriately political. In a speech a couple months later, Chief Justice Roberts recalled the episode as "very troubling" and wondered whether the justices should attend an event that had devolved into a "political pep rally." Alito, a Bush II appointee, has already made his choice: He is in Hawaii this week. It's not clear whether Washington's frigid temperatures or frosty political climate convinced him to seek shelter in more hospitable corners. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who attended last year's speech, has not announced his plans. The other two Republican appointees on the court -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- typically don't grace the president with their presence. I hope Roberts makes a different choice. I understand the chief justice's unease. It could not have been pleasant to sit Sphinx-like in the chamber as the president chastised the court and Democrats jumped from their seats in a raucous ovation. But declining to attend would be a mistake. Roberts has been at every state of the union since his confirmation in 2005. His absence on Tuesday would be interpreted as a snub to Obama and would create the impression that the president's words still pained him. Showing up, on the other hand, would prove that Roberts is above the fray, unfazed by attacks and unbowed by pressure -- judicial independence incarnate. It would also send an unmistakable message that the best interests of the country must always trump personal grievances. In some ways, it's not fair to ask Roberts to be the bigger person. He, after all, did not assail the president or misrepresent one of his policies. But unlike the justices, the president has little choice but to show up to his own speech. That's why all eyes will be on Roberts.


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