March 10, 2010 -- It's been a busy few days for Chief Justice John Roberts. Last week, he was the subject of a viral Internet rumor that he was going to retire, and last night the White House pounced on comments he made about the partisan atmosphere at the State of the Union address.
Roberts said Tuesday that he was "very troubled" by the "setting, circumstance and decorum" of the State of the Union speech, where justices are forced to sit expressionless while Congress "literally surrounds them," at times cheering and hollering.
At the most recent State of the Union speech in January, President Obama criticized a recent Supreme Court decision that invalidated decades-old federal legislation restricting corporate expenditures on electoral advocacy.
Six of the nine justices of the Supreme Court were sitting in the audience, and the cameras captured Justice Samuel Alito shaking his head in disagreement when Obama said, "With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates."
Democratic senators sitting close to the justices stood up and cheered the president's words.
Roberts said in an appearance at the University of Alabama Law School Tuesday that the experience of one branch confronting another in such a partisan atmosphere made him feel uncomfortable.
"To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we are there," Roberts said.
On Tuesday night, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs released a written statement defending the president's actions.
"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," the statement read. "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."
Justices Rarely React to State of the Union
Justices are invited to attend the State of the Union, but they rarely applaud or react because issues that are mentioned in the speech could end up coming before the Court.
Today, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the president mischaracterized the court's ruling.
"If you're going to challenge the Supreme Court in a setting where they have no opportunity to respond or defend themselves, you ought to be absolutely accurate in your criticism," Sessions said.
Among other points, Sessions challenged the president's assertion that the decision reversed a "century of law." He said there was not a law in place limiting independent expenditures until 1947.
It is rare for a president to single out the Supreme Court in a speech, and a few days after the event, Justice Clarence Thomas said he no longer attends the speeches because "It has become so partisan and it's very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there."
On an audio recording of his appearance at the University of Alabama Law School, Roberts also proved that when it comes to starting rumors, he can give as well as he got.
Last week, a story that Roberts had plans to retire spread on the Internet for a few hours until the source of the story, Radar Online, retracted it.
David Lat, who runs the Web site Above the Law, said the rumor could have been launched when a Georgetown law professor began a class earlier in the day by saying Roberts was going to retire, and then at the end of class confessed he'd told his students a lie in an effort to teach them more about trusting sources.
Lat speculated that a student in the class, upon hearing the professor's statement, might have e-mailed or tweeted about it before the professor had a chance to explain that he had been only trying to teach his students a lesson.
Asked about the rumor, Roberts said, "I do have to announce something to you. Apparently the professor ... has been so overwhelmed he's deciding to leave teaching. I feel sorry about it but what can you do."
Heather Elliot, a University of Alabama professor who attended the speech, said that Roberts delivered the line with a "sly smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye."
Roberts: Confirmation Process Broken
Roberts also called the process of confirmation hearings "broken down."
"Senators ask questions they know we can't answer," he said. "I think, frankly, they view the process as a vehicle for them to make statements about what's important to them and perhaps important to their constituents."
Roberts expressed hope that the senators might change the process to make it more meaningful.
"If they are interested in finding out information that is pertinent, they should change the way they do it," he said.