aturday, March 13, 2010
Hail to the Chief Justice
by Ken Blackwell
When the young John Roberts was confirmed as Chief Justice of the
in 2005, he declined to put those gold stripes on his robes. They’re the ones th United St ates atthe l ate William Rehnquist had devised to indic ate his st atus as first among equals on the n ation’s high court. “I’ll have to earn them,” Roberts said modestly. He just did. He gave a powerful rejoinder this week to President Obama’s unprecedented foray into demagoguery.
It’s more than a tempest in a teapot. Last January, President Obama took the unheard of step of criticizing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling during his St
ate of the Union Address. With most of the black-robed Justices se ated in front of him, Mr. Obama went out of his way to knock the Court’s 5-4 ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. The high court ruled, narrowly, th atmajor parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law are unconstitutional. Mr. Obama st ated, and liberal media outlets echoed his charge, th atthis would allow corpor ations and unions to give directly to campaigns.
The high court majority essentially found th
atyou don’t lose your First Amendment rights because you are a business, or a union. You can still praise or criticize a candid ate for public office. The McCain-Feingold Act was one of the worst infringements of free speech since the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In very practical terms, th atlaw gave the New York Times, CBS News, and the increasingly rabid MSNBC free rein, while putting a muzzle on non-profits like Family Research Council, N ational Right to Life Committee, and the Sierra Club.
In criticizing the Court’s ruling, the President got it wrong. He mischaracterized wh
atthe Court had done. Th at’s why—in one of the most memorable gestures in the history of the Supreme Court and of St ate of the Union Addresses—Justice Samuel Alito silently mouthed the words: SIMPLY NOT TRUE. Alito’s silent protest resounded throughout the n ation. The Court did not say th atcorpor ations and unions may now give directly to candid ates. It did not say th atit’s okay for candid ates to accept don ations from foreign corpor ations. These activities are still against the law.
The Chief Justice waited several weeks—a decent interval—before giving his powerful response. Of course you can criticize the U.S. Supreme Court, the Chief Justice said in answering questions from law students in
. It might even be your duty to criticize the rulings of the Court, he said. “If they think we’ve done something wrong,” the Chief Justice said, it can even be “an oblig Alabama ation to criticize wh atwe do.”
But, he went on, “[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 to the requirements of protocol—has to sit their expressionless, I think is very troubling.”
It is troubling indeed. The members of the Supreme Court are not potted plants. They are not supposed to sit there like wax figures while Barack Obama waxes indignant about their rulings.
Most of us can think of Supreme Court rulings th
atare outrageous. Dred Scott v. Sandford helped to drive this country into civil war. I would include Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in th atlist. The Kelo ruling th atallows local governments to condemn your home and give it to priv ate developers is another gross injustice. Liberals surely cannot abide Bush v. Gore, the Court’s 2000 ruling th atended ’s endless election recount. Florida
In criticizing the Supreme Court, however, we need to respect the rule of law and think about the time and the place. President Lincoln, in his First Inaugural, disputed the idea th
atthe Supreme Court had the final word on all political issues, but he took care to refer to the Court as “th ateminent tribunal.” President Reagan used his St ate of the Union Addresses to call for constitutional amendments to restore the right to life of the unborn, but he did not directly criticize the Court. FDR, following his landslide re-election in 1936, famously tried to “pack the Court” with six new members. Congress—even a Congress with overwhelming Democr atic majorities—defe ated him on th atone.
I thank and commend Chief Justice Roberts for his brave st
atements. He represents an equal coordin ate branch of our government. I hope th atnext year, the Chief Justice will join Justices Scalia and Thomas in staying away from the increasingly partisan, increasingly raucous display. Instead of w atching the St ate of the Union Address from a front row se at, the Justices might w atch American Idol, instead. Let Mr. Obama’s backers sit in those reserved se ats and cheer their own American idol all they want.
About The AuthorMr. Blackwell, a contributing editor
atTownhall.com, is a senior fellow atthe Family Research Council and American Civil Rights Union