Published March 10, 2010
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday the scene at President Obama's first State of the Union address was "very troubling" and that the annual speech to Congress has "degenerated into a political pep rally."
Responding to a University of Alabama law student's question about the Senate's method of confirming justices, Roberts said senators improperly try to make political points by asking questions they know nominees can't answer because of judicial ethics rules.
"I think the process is broken down," he said.
Obama chided the court for its campaign finance decision during the January address, with six of the court's nine justices seated before him in their black robes.
Roberts said he wonders whether justices should attend the address.
"To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there," said Roberts, a Republican nominee who joined the court in 2005.
Roberts said anyone is free to criticize the court and that some have an obligation to do so because of their positions.
"So I have no problems with that," he said. "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 the requirements of protocol -- has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling."
Breaking from tradition, Obama used the speech to criticize the court's decision that allows corporations and unions to freely spend money to run political ads for or against specific candidates.
"With all due deference to the separation of powers, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections," Obama said.
Justice Samuel Alito was the only justice to respond at the time, shaking his head and appearing to mouth the words "not true" as Obama continued.
In response to Roberts' remarks Tuesday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs focused on the court's decision and not the chief justice's point about the time and place for criticism of the court.
"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," Gibbs said. "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 and is working with Congress on a legislative response."
Justice Antonin Scalia once said he no longer goes to the annual speech because the justices "sit there like bumps on a log" in an otherwise highly partisan atmosphere.
Roberts opened his appearance in Alabama with a 30-minute lecture on the history of the Supreme Court and became animated as he answered students' questions. He joked about a recent rumor that he was stepping down from the court and said he didn't know he wanted to be a lawyer until he was in law school.
While Associate Justice Clarence Thomas told students at Alabama last fall he saw little value in oral arguments before the court, Roberts disagreed.
"Maybe it's because I participated in it a lot as a lawyer," Roberts said. "I'd hate to think it didn't matter."