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Posted by on Mar 10, 2010 in Politics, Society | 8 comments

White House-Supreme Court “War” Escalates After Chief Justice Roberts Comments about Obama’s “Troubling” State of Union Comments


That great philosopher and political commentator Bugs Bunny once said: “Of course you know, that means war!” Now, doesn’t it seem as if Supreme Court Justice John Roberts and White House press spokesman Robert Gibbs have been staying up late watching Cartoon Network these days?

The reason: if it doesn’t qualify as outright war, it can now be argued that Roberts and the White House have now shoved the issue of the Supreme Court and the executive branch’s reaction to it into the nation’s polarizing, anger-tainted talk radio political culture — the nation’s ongoing 21st century battle.

The best summary of the present war of words comes via the Washington Post, so we’ll look at it in some detail:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has presented the rebuttal argument in Obama v. Supreme Court.

Roberts’s remarks Tuesday protested the timing of President Obama’s State of the Union disapproval of the court’s decision in a major campaign finance case. It has begun Round Two in what appears to be a growing inclination from the White House and Democrats in Congress to criticize the court’s decisions.

The White House fired back Tuesday night with a statement that did not address the substance of Roberts’s comments but with another broadside at the court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. Press secretary Robert Gibbs accused the court of opening “the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections — drowning out the voices of average Americans.”

The court ruled 5 to 4 in January that corporations and unions had a First Amendment right to use their general treasuries and profits to spend freely on political ads for and against specific candidates.

Two aspects of this are notable:

1. The Supreme Court more and more with each passing decade is being perceived as a political entity, no matter how its members try to cushion or explain it.
Part of the reason is the mega-politicization of Supreme Court nominees — a development that can be blamed on partisans in both parties and single-issue groups that demand litmus tests.

2. The political context should be bittersweet to Democrats
. Before the 2008 election, and its immediate aftermath, Democrats dreamed of a new Supreme Court majority that would allow them to reverse the court’s conservative trend (partly due to disgruntled Democrats staying home on past election days or voting for Ralph Nader). But based on recent polls, political bungling, Barack Obama’s inability to be as charismatic and powerful as President as he was a candidate, some high profile House of Rep and special election Senate losses, hubris on the parts of some parts of its party, the success of right wing talk show hosts to rally and solidify the GOP faithful, plus the GOP’s apparently successful put-on-the-brakes strategy in Congress, that dream now appears to be a pipe dream. In the new political reality, if Obama gets to nominate more Supreme Court judges he will face far greater political constraints. The Democrats have now seemingly lost the moment — and by the 2010 elections will have likely lose the large majority — to enact their dream of reshaping the court.

More from the WaPo:

Roberts’s comments came Tuesday in a question-and-answer session with law students at the University of Alabama. He turned down a chance to address criticism of the decision, saying “I’ll have to let my opinion on that speak for itself.”

But later he was asked whether it was proper to use the State of the Union address to “chide” the court for its decision.

“First of all, anybody can criticize the Supreme Court without any qualm,” he said, adding that “some people, I think, have an obligation to criticize what we do, given their office, if they think we’ve done something wrong.”

He continued: “So I have no problems with that. 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.

And, further down, this:

Roberts made it sound as if the problem might be solved by justices simply choosing not to attend.

“To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we’re there,” said the chief justice, who has attended the event since he joined the court in 2005.

There could be some real political consequences now for the White House due to the way this seems to be playing out — and how this will now turn the issue of how many members of the court show up at next year’s State of the Union address into an attention-consuming side issue. Glenn Reynolds states it well in his post:

It’ll be interesting to see how many show up next year. Meanwhile, it seems clear to me that had a Republican President behaved similarly, we’d be hearing loud cries of “Fascism!” from all the usual suspects.

UPDATE: Not only did Alito’s mouthed response overshadow Obama this year — next year, there will be lots of stories on whether the Supreme Court justices show up or not, and either way Obama will have stepped on his own speech a second time.

Indeed: you can just see this coming the way our politics and media operate. The broader issue — what the State of the Union contains — is always much less fun to cover than the story about both sides answering the call of nature, directing their aim at each other.

The collateral damage is often the substantive issues.

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