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Chief Justice John Roberts and Obama White House: a tit for tat

Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday, in response to an audience question, he was troubled that President Obama used the occasion of his State of the Union address to criticize a Supreme Court ruling. The Obama White House, in turn, reiterated its objection to the court's decision.

Before President Obama's first State of the Union address Jan. 27, he greeted Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court. During the address, the president criticized the high court's recent campaign-finance ruling. This week Justice Roberts took issue with that timing.

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It’s starting to look like the Hatfields versus the McCoys. Except, in this instance, it’s two branches of government duking it out: the judicial branch (Chief Justice John Roberts) versus the executive (President Obama).

On Tuesday, appearing before law students at the University of Alabama, Justice Roberts took issue with the setting of Mr. Obama’s criticism of a controversial campaign finance ruling – the Jan. 27 State of the Union address.

Mr. Roberts was responding to a question from a student, who asked if it was appropriate for the president to criticize the Supreme Court at that moment. Roberts said he had no problem with people criticizing the high court.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances, and the decorum. 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.”

In fact, not all of the six justices present sat there expressionless. Associate Justice Samuel Alito was caught on camera scowling and mouthing “not true” when Obama voiced his criticism.

Perhaps the whole episode would have been a nonevent had Alito not been seen reacting. But he was, and six weeks later, it’s still the most-remembered moment of the speech.

The decision at issue, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, gave corporations the free speech rights of individuals, allowing them to spend without limit on campaign ads. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on the decision.

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