Friday, January 29, 2010

The Obama vs. Alito Legless Outrage

 I'll begin this discussion with a question.

Is disgruntled Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito's  muttering of "not true," according to lip readers, the same as Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shout out "you lie" during a president's speech at a joint session of Congress?


You wouldn't know that in the wake of President Obama's State of the Union address Wednesday. The president rebuked the court's 5-4 ruling the previous Thursday that allowed unlimited corporate spending in federal election campaigns. Alito's head shaped into a prune as he muttered a few inaudible words.

This 30-second incident, if one might call it that, came during a 72-minute speech. The reaction drew as much attention as anything else the president's speech covered.

I doubt this story has legs. It is a difference of judicial philosophy between a couple of constitutional lawyers. Obama from Harvard and Alito from Yale. Sort of an Ivy League elite squabble.

My experience in covering national events is to overlook subtle nuances because although they may portray a story behind the story they seldom have little significance to the overall picture. More on that later.

Here's the Washington Post's account of what the president said that apparently irritated Alito:

"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week 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," Obama said.
"I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems." 

There is a difference of opinion in the legal community whether foreign corporations can spend money on U.S. elections as Obama and others in his camp contend. The Los Angeles Times:

"This was an outrageous statement by the president and a breach of decorum. It was pure demagoguery," said Bradley A. Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a sharp critic of the campaign finance laws. He said the law continued to forbid election spending by foreign corporations.

Other reactions from the Post:

"Rude," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) about the president.

"Inappropriate" said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) about Alito.

"I can't ever recall a president taking a swipe at the Supreme Court like that," said Lucas A. Powe Jr., a Supreme Court expert at the University of Texas law school.

 In less blunt terms, Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan each asked Congress for specific action in response to court decisions of which they disagreed.

In an address to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so irate at the court for overturning many of his "New Deal" programs he urged expanding the court. Congress rejected FDR's court packing plan.

The Obama/Alito ruffle has a history.

As a Senator, Obama opposed Alito's nomination to the high court offered by President George W. Bush.

"I have found that in almost every case, he consistently sides on behalf of the powerful against the powerless; on behalf of a strong government or corporation against upholding American's individual rights," Sen. Obama said during the confirmation hearings. The vote was 58-42 to confirm.

Justice Alito does not do interviews and rarely makes a speech so only his closest peers can guess what goes on in his mind. He has been quoted as saying the nomination process was "dehumanizing."

He was conspiculously absent last year when Obama, at the invitation from Chief Justice John Roberts. made a friendly visit to the court.

Bottom line: This rift is between two power players from two competing branches of government. It is remarkable in its pettiness.

Alito's decorum is a far cry from Rep. Wilson's "you lie" mini-rant which I rated an 8 on my outrage scale of 10. I'll rate Obama's call out a 5 and Alito's reaction a 1.

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