When Barack Obama turned his State of the Union address into an attack on the Supreme Court's ruling that ended the ban against corporate spending for political campaigns, the justices had to sit there motionless while encircled by Democratic lawmakers who cheered the president's scolding.
Judicial scholars could not recall a president "taking a swipe" at the justices, as one of them put it, in such a venue, at least not since FDR did it in his 1937 address before he tried to pack the court with more liberals to rule in favor of his unconstitutional New Deal programs.
Sadly, the news media focused on Justice Samuel Alito Jr., seen shaking his head and mouthing the words "not true, not true" to something the president said was true.
The nightly news shows at the time questioned Alito's response, not the president's questionable -- and many thought rude -- political attack on the high court, treating the justices before him as if they were schoolchildren and he was their headmaster. The word intimidation comes to mind, with two major branches of government seemingly ganging up on the third.
Now, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has waded into this controversy and said something that needed to be said -- that this episode was at the very least a troubling breach of decorum and protocol.
But he seemed to suggest even more than that. This was a deliberate, public, dressing down of the justices, who handed down the 5-4 decision, in the midst of a forum that Obama turned into a partisan, campaign-style address. And the judges, who were guests, were turned into targets to score political points
Round two of this issue came up when Roberts spoke at the University of Alabama law school Tuesday and took questions from the students. He politely and correctly declined to answer when asked about criticism of the court's decision. But when another student asked him whether the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress was the "proper venue" for the president to "chide" the high court, Roberts was only too happy to respond.
He began by essentially embracing the freedom-of-speech clause in the First Amendment that was the basis of the court's ruling in this case, saying that "anybody can criticize the Supreme Court without any qualm." And in a deep bow to the two other branches of government, he even added that "some people, I think, have an obligation to criticize what we do, given their office, if they think we've done something wrong.