By MORT PERSKY
News Item, 3/09/2010: U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts complained in an address to University of Alabama law students yesterday about the role his justices play in attending the President's State of the Union address, but without referring to Mr. Obama's rebuke of the court's recent Citizens United decision, a rebuke memorably resented by his confrere, Justice Samuel Alito. Roberts said in Tuscaloosa that he's "not sure why the justices are there" for the speech, and claims that while he has no problem with having the court's decisions criticized, there is also the issue of "setting, circumstances and decorum" to be considered.
Oh, why not? Why don't we give Mr. Roberts some reasons (which he will almost certainly reject) for why his injustice-prone justices should be on hand for the President's State of the Union speech? Present only in part, that is, since three of his nine did not condescend to attend the event, which he says has "degenerated into a political pep rally." In other words, one-third of his court prefigured his complaint by treating this acknowledgment of their government's other two segments as beneath their dignity.
One reason, Mr. Roberts, for your attendance at the State of the Union is simply to absorb -- as reluctantly as Mr. Alito, if necessary -- the same sweet stuff you spend so much time dishing out during the rest of the year. A second is that during the months you and your colleagues spend unconfronted by the rest of your government or the public, you are allowed to appear more august and unreachable than ought to be the case, and a corrective now appears to be in the national interest.
And yet another reason, Mr. Roberts (let us tell him), is that this appears to be the only moment the year affords for you and your justices to be held semi-accountable for even one of your numerous and (why kid ourselves?) never-to-be-acknowledged injustices.
Aside from that, what exactly do you mean when you cite "an issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum" as a possible reason members of the court should perhaps not bother to be there? Does your "setting-circumstances-decorum" lament amount to more than snobbery about sharing one of our most important national rituals with mere mortals, despite the degree of honor with which it is regarded by most other attendees and millions of your fellow citizens watching it on television?
Is it, in short, your idea that members of The Supreme Court need never descend to a place where its paragons of dignity, judgment and learning sully themselves by sitting with other Americans not devoting themselves to full-time demonstrations of respect for your distinguished presence -- as may be required of them in your own halls of occasional justice, occasionally based on interpretations of the U.S. Constitution mixed with just-as-occasional gut feelings about the original intentions of the Founding Fathers, now wholly un-consultable due to their long-undisputed demise?
Mr. Roberts, if I hear your complaints in Tuscaloosa correctly, you and your robed colleagues are in dire need of being brought closer to the earth where your and their judgments eventually sprout good and bad fruit, where the legal decisions you make have real results in circumstances and venues that bear little resemblance to the hallowed halls where they are made.
For all their shortcomings, the President and Congress understand that their roles in governing by alleged consent of the governed makes them amply eligible for criticism, and yet your colleague Mr. Alito took umbrage at being criticized for a decision in which consent of the governed was all but ripped out of our government's heart -- a place where it has long lain bleeding. It's high time you and your court turned to more germane concerns about human dignity than your own relationship to the "setting, circumstances and decorum" of the State of the Union address. Being there nine strong, however, would be a good start on a project that badly needs starting.