Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s head-shaking disagreement with President Barack Obama on Wednesday night offered a possible answer to the question of why Supreme Court justices bother to show up for the president's State of the Union address:
Alito's reaction to President Obama's criticism Wednesday night of a Supreme Court decision last week — even if Alito's exact words are in doubt — sparked an immediate controversy about whether he was unjudicial or the president was taking an unprecedented shot at the court while its members sat silently in front of him.
There's no question about what Obama said:
"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.
"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."
Democratic lawmakers and Obama Cabinet members, surrounding the six justices who attended, stood and applauded.
The black-robed justices, in the front and second rows of the House chamber, sat motionless and expressionless. Except for Alito.
"Not true, not true," he appeared to say (other lip readers have a slightly different version) as he shook his head and furrowed his brow.
Tapes show that Alito began shaking his head when Obama said "special interests" and mouthed the words after that.
There's also a bit of history at work. If it were up to Obama, of course, Alito wouldn't have even been in the chambers. As a senator, he voted against Alito's confirmation. He said President George W. Bush's second nominee to the court was a man of "great character" and that he was an accomplished jurist.
"But when you look at his record — when it comes to his understanding of the Constitution, 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 Americans' individual rights," Obama said. Alito was confirmed by a vote of 58 to 42.
Alito has expressed unhappiness with the confirmation process in the past and was a notable no-show when President-elect Obama and running mate Joe Biden accepted Chief Justice John Roberts' invitation to pay a courtesy call on the court before taking office. Alito was the only member of the court not to attend.