Obama-Alito tensions surface at State of the Union address


If there was ever an era of good feelings between President Obama, a Harvard Law School 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 night for the annual State of the Union address, Obama denounced a court ruling last week as opening the floodgates to corporate money in American elections. Dissenting was Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., 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 criticized a high 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 goes 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.

“This was an outrageous statement by the president and a breach of decorum. It was pure demagoguery,” said Bradley A. Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a sharp critic of the campaign finance laws. He said the law continued to forbid election spending by foreign corporations.

“What was Justice Alito thinking?” said Common Cause, a liberal group that has championed campaign-funding limitations. “This deeply flawed opinion will allow corporations, including those owned by a majority of foreign entities, to spend without limit to influence U.S. elections.”

Sen. Orrin G. 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 that 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 J. Leahy (D-Vt.) went to the Senate floor and called last week’s ruling “the most partisan decision since Bush vs. 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 Americans’ individual rights.”

A year later, Alito wrote the court’s 5-4 decision in the Lilly Ledbetter case, which threw out a sex-bias verdict in favor of an Alabama woman. Obama repeatedly criticized the ruling during his campaign, and as president signed a law to undo it.

Last year, a few days before Obama’s inauguration, he and Vice President-elect Joe Biden visited the Supreme Court at the invitation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. All of the justices were there for the friendly meeting, with the notable exception of Alito.

Election law experts also differed over the effect of last week’s ruling on foreign corporations.

Obama said that 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.”

Since 1907, Congress has prohibited corporations from using their money “directly or indirectly” to elect candidates for federal office. After World War II, Congress extended this ban to labor unions and made it clear that the ban applied to independent election spending, not just contributions to a candidate.

But last week’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission struck down this election spending ban. “The 1st 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 that the logic of the majority opinion “would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans.”

Although Congress cannot overturn a Supreme Court ruling, Democrats said that they planned to consider legislation that would require corporations to tell shareholders before they put money into election races.