Federal Courts and Nominations

Supreme Court, Legal Issues Stay Out of the Spotlight at State of the Union

Posted by Tony Mauro on January 24, 2012 at 11:13 PM

Two years ago, President Barack Obama made headlines at his State of the Union address by calling out the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision, with six justices watching as he spoke. Tonight, with jobs and the economy taking center stage, Obama and the cameras largely ignored the five justices in attendance.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan were in the audience, as were Court officials including Clerk William Suter and Jeffrey Minear, counselor to the chief justice. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who attended for the last two years, was absent, likely in transit to a judicial conference in Guam where she is scheduled to speak in coming days.

Before and after the 2010 speech, justices have grumbled about attending the speech. Roberts said it was akin to a “political pep rally” at which the justices, to maintain their neutrality, mostly sit on their hands. Roanoke College professor Todd Peppers, author of a new paper charting the spotty attendance record of justices at State of the Union addresses through history, said Roberts’ attendance in spite of his criticisms probably shows he wants to show the public that the judiciary is a “key but distinctive player in the dynamic of American government.”

Alito, whose silent rebuke of Obama at the 2010 speech was replayed often on television, said later that he would likely not attend again. He has made good on his word, sitting out the 2011 speech and tonight’s as well. Also missing were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both of whom have also complained about the awkwardness of attending such a political event.

Obama tonight did decry the “corrosive influence of money in politics,” but instead of blaming the high court, he pointed to several proposals for legislative fixes. The judicary came up only one other time, as Obama urged a “simple up or down vote” on judicial and public service nominees within 90 days of being nominated.

That proposal drew immediate praise from Doug Kendall of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center: “His call for an expedited process … would benefit presidents of both political parties and the judiciary. Unprecedented obstruction by conservatives in the Senate have blocked even President Obama’s most uncontroversial judicial nominees, and has brought the judiciary to the breaking point.” 

On other legal issues, Obama renewed his call for immigration reform and said he was asking Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to launch a federal-state effort “to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.”

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