WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama drew what could be called a bipartisan majority of the Supreme Court on Tuesday night, as six of its nine justices showed up to listen to his State of the Union address just a year after he scolded them for freeing corporations to fund campaign ads.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, both nominated by Republicans, joined the four Democratic appointees to the high court.
Last March, after Obama’s remarks, Roberts told a group of law students that the State of the Union speech had “degenerated into a political pep rally” and “I’m not sure why we are there.”
But had the chief justice and Kennedy stayed away this year, it would have looked as though the court’s divisions mirrored those in Congress. Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both Clinton appointees, regularly attend the annual State of the Union speech. They were joined this year by Obama’s two appointees: Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Last year, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. drew attention when he shook his head and appeared to say “not true” when Obama faulted the court for reversing a “century” of law that restricted corporate involvement in politics. Since 1907, federal law has barred corporate “contributions” to campaigns. Last year’s 5-4 decision freed corporations and unions to spend money on their own to promote or defeat a candidate.
This year, Alito accepted an invitation to teach law in Hawaii in late January, during a court break, and he was among the absentees Tuesday evening.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have complained in the past about the political nature of the president’s annual speech to Congress, and they rarely attend. They were absent last year as well as this year.
In the past two decades, attendance at the State of the Union address has become spotty for members of the Supreme Court. On a few occasions, only Breyer was in attendance when President George W. Bush addressed Congress.