They've been as much a part of the State of the Union tradition as the doorkeeper's cry, "Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!" The black-robed Supreme Court justices have their place in the front row of the House chamber, and--as members of Congress respond in raucous partisanship to the speech--they sit silently with hands on laps.
But not last night. Not a single justice showed. They did send regrets. In a short message to the House sergeant at arms, the justices said they "had planned to attend . . . but travel changes and minor illnesses have intervened." But, the justices "do thank you for the invitation to be present for the address."
President Clinton's two appointees were under the weather, according to a court spokeswoman. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was feeling side effects from radiation (a follow-up to colon cancer surgery last fall) and Justice Stephen G. Breyer had the flu.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was on his way to New York for a speech, and Justice Clarence Thomas was in Georgia for his brother's funeral. Justice John Paul Stevens was caring for his wife, who recently had a hip replaced. The whereabouts of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter were not known.
Court spokesman Kathy Arberg said that only once in recent decades did all the justices miss the address, in 1986, when it was postponed a week because of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Individual justices have groused over the years about attending the highly political event, but they usually muster a majority to be part of the ritual. One of the more publicized absences of a justice was in the mid-1980s, when Associate Justice Rehnquist missed the speech so he could attend his painting class in Arlington.