Paul Greenberg

Civility and the need for it is much in the news these days, often enough in a political context, and even more often when pundits and pols are accusing each other of lacking it.

Civility, like so many other virtues, tends to be more preached than practiced. And to judge by much contemporary commentary, it is a practice most needed by others.

Even so, such lectures may have a wholesome effect. Note the president's State of the Union yawner some weeks ago. This year he didn't pause to ream out the various members of the Supreme Court of the United States in attendance. Last year they were arrayed (and arraigned) before him like prisoners in the dock waiting to be lectured severely. Which they were.

Their offense: daring to respect the right to free speech of even those most despised of creatures in American political rhetoric: corporations, political action committees and labor unions. There was no such dramatic spectacle this year. Its absence was a great improvement. Boredom can be a step up for this president.

Only six justices showed up for this year's address from the throne and, all too often, partisan circus. In recent decades the congresspersons have taken to jumping up and down like jacks-in-the-box when a president cues them. This year three of the black-robed brethren summoned sufficient self-respect to absent themselves from this Roman spectacle.

Instead of just sitting there while being skewered, the Hon. Samuel Alito couldn't help but mouth the words "not true" when the president took advantage of his captive audience to misrepresent one of the court's most important decisions ever on behalf of freedom of speech.

Brother Alito would have done better to remain expressionless while walking out. For in America no gentleman need stand for that kind of thing -- not from anyone, whether servant or public servant, porter or president of the United States.

But this year, while the president prated on, Brother Alito was spending a week in Hawaii as "jurist in residence" at its university's law school. That way, he could say Aloha to the president from a safe and sunny distance.

The second judicial, and judicious, no-show was Antonin Scalia, who hasn't attended a State of the Union for a couple of decades. Well played, sir. What a rare show of good judgment on the part of a justice who otherwise goes around the country making political speeches and even staging public debates with another self-promoting justice (the Hon. Stephen Breyer).

Naturally enough, the Hon. (and honorable) Clarence Thomas stayed away, too, having had quite enough of presidential rudeness in the past.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.