WASHINGTON — If there was ever an era of good feelings between President Obama, a Harvard law grad and former law professor, and the justices of the Supreme Court, it apparently ended this week.
As six of the justices sat in the front row Wednesday evening for the annual State of the Union address, Obama denounced the court's ruling last week for opening the floodgates to corporate money in American elections. Dissenting was Justice Samuel Alito, who shook his head and appeared to say "not true" as the president spoke.
Legal scholars could not recall a similar incident in which a president lambasted a Supreme Court ruling in a State of the Union speech. On the other hand, it is rare for the justices to hand down a momentous decision in mid-January, just before the president travels to Capitol Hill for his annual speech to the assembled lawmakers.
Not surprisingly, partisans in the dispute over money in politics disagreed over who was to blame for the incident.
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"This was an outrageous statement by the president and a breach of decorum. It was pure demagoguery," said Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a sharp critic of the campaign finance laws. He said the law continues to forbid election spending by foreign corporations.
"What was Justice Alito thinking?" countered Common Cause, a group that has championed the campaign-funding laws. "This deeply flawed opinion will allow corporations, including those owned by foreign entities, to spend without limit to influence U.S. elections."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said it was "kind of rude" for the president to criticize the Supreme Court justices who were invited as guests. He told The Salt Lake City Tribune it was "one thing to say that he differed with the court but another thing to demagogue the issue while the court is sitting there."
But on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., went to the Senate floor and called last week's ruling "the most partisan decision since Bush v. Gore. That decision by the activist conservative bloc intervened in a presidential election. This decision is broader and more damaging in that they have now decided to intervene in all elections."
The clash between Alito and Obama has some history behind it.
Four years ago, then-Sen. Obama was one of 42 Democrats who opposed Alito's confirmation. He described Alito as a well-qualified judge, but one who "consistently sides on behalf of the powerful against the powerless or on behalf of a corporation against upholding American's individual rights."
Election-law experts also differed over the significance of last week's ruling on foreign corporations.
Obama said the ruling had "reversed a century of law... (and) will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections."
But last week's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission struck down this election-spending ban. "The First Amendment does not permit... these categorical distinctions based on the corporate identity of the speaker," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the logic of the majority opinion "would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans."
Democrats said they plan to consider legislation that would require corporations to tell shareholders before they put money into election races.