Roberts Likely to Lead Six Justices at Obama Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court indicated that Chief Justice John Roberts will attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, ensuring a bipartisan delegation at an event that last year drew the justices into a political controversy.

Kathy Arberg, the Supreme Court’s spokeswoman, said six of the nine justices plan to go tonight. Though she wouldn’t provide the names, Justice Samuel Alito is in Hawaii and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas previously all but ruled out attending.

Roberts had questioned whether justices should continue attending the annual event, likening it in March to a “political pep rally.” He sat passively last year as Obama drew a standing ovation from congressional Democrats by criticizing the court’s just-issued campaign finance ruling.

Those comments from Roberts had created the prospect that the court’s delegation might consist entirely of Democratic appointees, perhaps supplemented by Republican-nominated Anthony Kennedy, the court’s most frequent swing vote. Instead, the Republican-appointed Roberts will join Justices Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan at the speech.

Roberts is “taking the high road,” said Barbara Perry, a presidential and Supreme Court scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “He is going to follow in the footsteps of those who have kept the court at the very highest level of the public’s faith and confidence.”

Alito in Hawaii

The five Republican appointees formed the majority in the 5-4 campaign finance ruling, which freed corporations to spend money on political ads. When Obama used the State of the Union speech six days later to criticize the decision, television cameras caught Alito mouthing “not true.”

Alito is in Hawaii this year, serving as the jurist-in-residence at the William S. Richardson School of Law in Honolulu. He will be giving a speech there tomorrow.

Alito’s decision not to attend is “a good thing,” Perry said. She said his presence would have been a reminder of last year’s controversy at a time when some lawmakers are trying to reduce partisan rancor in the aftermath of the Tucson, Arizona, shooting rampage.

Having Misgivings

Roberts, who has gone to every annual presidential address to Congress since taking his seat in 2005, suggested in March that he had misgivings about continuing that practice.

“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 there expressionless, I think is very troubling,” Roberts told law students at the University of Alabama. “And it does cause you to think whether or not it makes sense for us to be there.”

Alito expressed similar misgivings in October. He said the event had become awkward for the justices, forcing them to sit “like the proverbial potted plant.”

Attendance by justices at the president’s annual speech to Congress has varied over the years, in part because of changes in the court’s membership. None of justices were at President Bill Clinton’s speech in 2000, and in four of the following five years only Breyer attended.

The recently retired Justice John Paul Stevens traditionally skipped the speech regardless who the president was. Scalia hasn’t attended a State of the Union address since the 1990s, and Thomas has gone on occasion, most recently attending Obama’s first address to Congress in 2009.