Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Tuesday criticized President Obama for rebuking the high court's decision striking down some campaign finance reform laws at the State of the Union in January.
Speaking to law students at the University of Alabama, Roberts said he had "no problems" with criticism in general.
"On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum," said the Chief Justice. "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."
Asked for comment, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "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 continued, saying, "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.”
That evening, with some of the Justices sitting before him, the president criticized the court's ruling allowing corporations and unions to spend money advocating for or against the election of 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," the president said.
At the time, Justice Samuel Alito could be seen shaking his head and saying "that's not true."
Afterwards, a noted Supreme Court historian who “enthusiastically” voted for President Obama in November 2008 told ABC News that the president's criticism in that setting was “really unusual” and said he wouldn’t be surprised if no Supreme Court Justices attend the speech next year.
“It was really unusual in my mind to see the president going after the Supreme Court in such a forum,” said author and Law Professor Lucas Powe, the Anne Green Regents Chair in Law, and a Professor of Government at the University of Texas-Austin School of Law. “I’m willing to bet a lot of money there will be no Supreme Court justice at the next State of the Union speech.”
Added Professor Powe, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, “you don’t go to be insulted. I can’t see the Justices wanting to be there and be insulted by the president.” His opinion has nothing to do with animus towards the President, for whom Powe said he voted enthusiastically.
The way the president deviated from the prepared text indicated he may have tried to soften his remarks as he made them. He added “with all due deference to separation of powers” and replaced his desire that Democrats and Republicans “pass a bill that helps to right this wrong” with one for lawmakers to “pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems."