Chief Justice Roberts should scalp his SOTU tickets
What would you do if you had Super Bowl tickets you couldn't use? Or great seats to the opera on a night you were scheduled to be out of town? Most of us would either try to sell (i.e., scalp) them or give them away to family members or very, very good friends. Maybe that's what the justices of the Supreme Court should consider doing with their coveted front-row seats to the State of the Union.
It's no secret that this year's SOTU wasn't exactly festive for some of the attending justices -- particularly those who voted to throw out certain corporate spending limits in election-related matters. With six justices sitting front and center, President Obama peered down from the podium and diplomatically but unequivocally blasted the decision, arguing that it would open the floodgates to corporate cash, including from foreign donors. Justice Samuel A. Alito, until then sitting meekly in the second row reserved for those in robes, mouthed "not true" in response to some of the president's assertions.
I didn't see anything wrong with the president's behavior or that of Alito. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has a point when he wonders about whether members of the high court should attend these partisan events. "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," The Associated Press quotes Roberts as saying in response to a question following a speech Tuesday to University of Alabama law students. "I'm not sure why we're there."
There may have been a time when the State of the Union was just that -- a reportorial discourse by the president to members of the other two branches about the state of the country. But the speech has become yet another opportunity for the president to spin and push his political agenda. Nothing really wrong with that, except that it makes the justices' presence a bit odd -- especially because they're expected to sit in stone-faced silence.
Politicians are given a measure of latitude to boo, cheer and clap during these dog-and-pony shows, but even they overstep their bounds. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) was roundly criticized when he shouted "you lie" at Obama during the president's 2009 address to Congress. Imagine the hoopla had the shouter been a member of the court. Can anyone say "impeachment"? Members of the Joint Chiefs also customarily sit through the speech without reaction, but the president is their commander-in-chief, their boss, after all.
Sitting in Sphynx-like silence could be taken as a sign of the justices' respect for a government of laws and not of man, an indication of their respect for the office of the president, if not the president himself. But there's nothing in the constitution that says they must attend, and I wouldn't blame some of them (read: conservative justices who are likely to annoy the president with future decisions) if they decided to join Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in declining to make the trek from the court to the capitol. Who knows? Sometime early next year Alito and Roberts may suddenly discover that they have tickets to the hot show of the season and they just happen to be on the same night as the State of the Union. Bummer. But look on the bright side: They might break even on the theater tickets if they find buyers for the ring-side passes to the capitol.
| March 10, 2010; 3:27 PM ET
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