Asked if he would attend the State of the Union address next year, after the TV cameras this year caught him objecting to President Obama’s denigration of the country’s highest court, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito said, “I doubt that I will be there in January.”
Delivering the Manhattan Institute’s prestigious Wriston Lecture on Wednesday evening, Alito noted that other justices, like the recently retired John Paul Stevens and current Justice Antonin Scalia “stopped the practice of attending State of the Union addresses, because they have become very political.”
Attendees of the black tie event in New York City told Newsmax that Alito complained of it being “very awkward” for the justices who attend the annual speech in the presence of the assembled members of both houses of Congress.
“We have to sit there like the proverbial potted plant,” Alito said, and provoked howls of laughter from the crowd when he deadpanned that the justices who are “more disciplined refrain from manifesting any emotional opinion whatsoever.”
It was a self-deprecating remark; in January, as he sat near the podium during Obama’s speech in the Capitol, Justice Alito was affronted by the president’s charge that “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections.”
Videotape of the event shows Alito wincing, then apparently saying, “that’s simply not true.” Directly behind Alito, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Senate Democratic Caucus vice chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the second and third ranking Democrats in the Senate, gleefully took to their feet and cheered as Alito and the five other justices in attendance remained seated, looking uncomfortably intimidated.
Alito also joked regarding State of the Union addresses that “presidents will fake you out. There are certain things that a president will say that everybody has to applaud” like, “‘Isn’t this the greatest country in the world?’ … so you get up and you start to clap, and the president will say, ‘…because we are conducting the surge in Iraq.’”
Justice Alito’s speech was entitled “Let Judges Be Judges” and he used the occasion to warn that the nation’s most prestigious law schools are now dominated by “judicial theorists” who oppose judges applying the laws and the Constitution as written.
“It’s critical for alternative voices to be heard in the law schools,” the justice said during the question-answer period. “The Federalist Society does a fantastic job of providing an alternative voice in law schools,” Alito said, referring to the 20,000-strong conservative legal society that believes the judiciary should “say what the law is, not what it should be.”
“Asked whether a judge should apply the law as written or do what the judge thinks is fair and just, two thirds of those polled said ‘apply the law as written,’” Alito noted. Judges “have no warrant to pursue a reform agenda that is not grounded in the Constitution, and they should not aim to be theorists or crowd-pleasers,” he added. “Let judges be judges, for if they are not our legal system as we know it will fade away.”
Justice Alito also used the occasion to deride the New York Times, charging that “the popular media, unfortunately, often obscures” the fundamental point that “the Constitution does not always mean what we would like it to mean,” and that “the statutes the Congress enacts do not always mean what we would like them to mean.”
Alito alluded to a July New York Times article calling the Roberts Court “the most conservative in decades.” The online version featured an interactive quiz on how Times readers’ views align with those of the Roberts Court, including questions on highly-charged issues like banning partial-birth abortions.
Justice Alito called it “fundamentally at odds with the traditional understanding of the judicial role.” The question at issue in the abortion case was not supporting or opposing partial-birth abortion, but “whether the federal statute violated the Constitution; the New York Times quiz question obscured this critical point.”
And he added that “while the creator of the New York Times quiz may not appreciate the difference between what the Constitution means and what one might like it to mean, ordinary people still do get this critical distinction.”
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