As the dust settles on the State of the Union address, I can't stop thinking about the one memorable part of the evening. My mouth dropped open when the president looked the justices of the Supreme Court in the eye and criticized their recent decision on campaign finance law. Here's the video of what the president said and Justice Alito's reaction. Vice President Biden piled on the next day, telling ABC News, "The President didn't question the integrity of the court. He questioned the judgment of it." The decision was "dead wrong," and an "outrageous decision," he said. "Not outrageous in the fact that these guys are bad guys, but outrageous in the way you read the Constitution." Leave it to Biden to tell us what the president really thinks: the justices are "dead wrong" in reading the Constitution and he questions their judgment as "outrageous." Now opinions are flying on both sides. On scotusblog.com, there's a round-up of the commentary with links to interesting articles, but I'm going to leave the legal analysis to the lawyers and just say I thought the President and Vice President were disrespectful.
I come from a family of courtroom lawyers, and I know that a good lawyer never publicly criticizes a judge. Of course there are exceptions--for judges who engage in openly unethical behavior and must be removed from office, for example--but on matters of case law and legal judgment, it's just not good form. There's a good reason: questioning the wisdom of judges--especially the ones sitting on the highest court in the land--undermines public faith in our judicial system. It chips away at its legitimacy.
Imagine if Ronald Reagan had given a State of the Union address and turned to the justices in the front row to say that Roe v. Wade had been wrongly decided. Unlike this time, I don't think the Democrats in the chamber would have stood and applauded.
It was upsetting when the president first criticized the justices' decision in his Weekly Radio Address--in what the Christian Science Monitor called "unusually testy language"-- and I'm sorry now that I didn't write about it then. Maybe if more people had reacted to his criticism as over the line right away, President Obama would have thought twice about going after the court for a second time in front of 48 million viewers. The president knew that the Supreme Court justices would be powerless to defend themselves in that setting, and he did it anyway. It seemed like bullying to me.
Justice Alito doesn't strike me as a hothead. I've seen him give a speech, and he's a pretty unemotional person. For the justice to react even just by shaking his head, says to me he felt provoked. Despite the president's cool, aloof, lecturing way--or maybe because of it--Barack Obama has a way of really provoking people.