In his State of The Union Address, President Barack Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporate funding of political broadcasts couldn’t be limited because it is protected by the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Justice Samuel Alito became visibly upset, making a conflict between two of the most important legal minds in the country public. Jack Barlow, professor of politics, explains further.
Was President Obama out of line?
No, let us give an example. President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his court-packing plan during a State of The Union address, so it is not unprecedented for a president to express disagreement with specific decisions of the Supreme Court.
Was Justice Alito out of line?
Yes. the Supreme Court tries very hard to maintain an image of being above the political fray; and when Justice Alito was confirmed, it was widely assumed he would be a very political justice. [His action] is not only out of line, but also imprudent because it reinforces the image of him as having a political agenda. We know President Obama has a political agenda, but we expect judges to be above that.
Why is Citizens United vs. FEC such a controversial issue?
It was the first major test of the campaign finance laws since the majority of the court shifted with Justice Alito’s nomination. As recently as 2005 or 2006 there was a decision upholding the McCain-Feingold Act (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast a vote upholding the law. The decision really shows how the Supreme Court has turned conservative.
What is your opinion on the case and the controversy surrounding it?
I’m not sure about the case and would need to study it in detail. The controversy was a mistake on Justice Alito’s part to show disagreement with the president.
Are there any consequences for Justice Alito?
None, but I suspect that Justice Alito will not do this again. Justices draw straws to not go to the State of the Union. Justice David Souter hated doing it because he did not feel it was appropriate for justices to be there. The State of The Union address is a political theatre. However, Justice Warren Burger loved going. Some [of the justices] who are more sensitive about keeping the judicial separate from the executive are not happy to attend.
-Aaron Adams ’12, Juniata Online Journalist