- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2010

The simmering feud between the White House and the Supreme Court is getting a little hotter - and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are helping fan the flames.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s impromptu portrayal Tuesday of President Obama’s attacks on the high court during the State of the Union address as “very troubling” drew a brusque retort from the White House, which called the court’s campaign finance ruling the real problem, and from Democrats eager to attack the court.

Responding to a law student’s question when speaking at the University of Alabama, Chief Justice Roberts took aim at Mr. Obama’s public chiding in January, saying the annual speech to Congress has “degenerated into a political pep rally.” The chief justice, whose nomination by President George W. Bush was opposed by Mr. Obama as a senator, said he accepts criticism but suggested that detractors should be mindful of “the setting, the circumstances and the decorum.”

“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,” Chief Justice Roberts said, wondering why the justices bother to show up since presidential addresses to Congress have “degenerated into a political pep rally.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was quick to respond Tuesday night, echoing Mr. Obama’s criticisms of the high court’s recent decision to strike down political contribution limits for unions and corporations.

“What is troubling is that this decision opened the floodgates for corporations and special interests to pour money into elections - drowning out the voices of average Americans,” Mr. Gibbs said.

“The president has long been committed to reducing the undue influence of special interests and their lobbyists over government. That is why he spoke out to condemn the decision and is working with Congress on a legislative response to close this loophole,” Mr. Gibbs said.

At issue is the high court’s opinion in the Citizens United case, in which a 5-4 majority concluded that the First Amendment prohibits limits on corporate funding of independent political broadcasts. While most Republicans have hailed the decision as a victory for free speech, congressional Democrats have been working feverishly on a bill that would blunt the impact of the decision on this year’s midterm elections.

“With all due deference to the separation of powers, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections,” Mr. Obama said in his January address.

The justices present remained silent as applauding Democratic lawmakers leapt to their feet, though Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was seen shaking his head and muttering under his breath.

Since that presidential address, Democrats have continued to increase pressure on the court.

On Wednesday, Chief Justice Roberts and his colleagues in the majority came under fire in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with liberal legal scholars and Democrats repeatedly attacking “the Roberts court.”

“The court damaged its own reputation and integrity,” said Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, also took a swing at the court Wednesday, telling reporters he was “so disappointed” with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, viewed as a conservative swing vote. He also blasted Chief Justice Roberts as out of touch with legislative politics.

“Do you think John Roberts knows or cares how people get elected?” Mr. Reid said, according to the Huffington Post.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, came to Chief Justice Roberts’ defense, saying the court got the law right and Mr. Obama was “disrespectful” for criticizing the court while the justices were seated right in front of him.

“No president has done that, and he should not have used that speech for it either,” Mr. Hatch said. “Chief Justice Roberts is right - the president’s remarks were troubling and the State of the Union this year resembled a political pep rally. Supreme Court justices are there by tradition, and I hope the State of the Union address in the future returns to the kind of event that merits their continued attendance.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed Mr. Hatch’s complaints.

Top Democrats are working on a bill to try to undercut the court’s January campaign-finance ruling. It would force corporations and unions that want to run political ads to register separate spending accounts, make them disclose how they got money for the ads and guarantee politicians low rates to respond with their own broadcast ads.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, are pursuing passage of a bill to prevent freewheeling spending from swamping this year’s congressional elections.

The two lawmakers say corporations, unions and nonprofit groups that want to pay for broadcast political ads should have to register separate accounts with the Federal Election Commission to receive funds and pay for ads. All contributions and expenditures to and from the funds would have to be reported.

Some corporations would be banned outright from running ads. They would include companies in which foreigners have 20 percent ownership or are otherwise demonstrably in control, and any corporations that are taking Wall Street bailout money or receive government contracts.

That ban would cover many major technology, defense, communications and scientific research firms.

Any politician who is targeted by a corporate or union ad would be guaranteed the lowest broadcast ad rates to respond.

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