Video: Justice Alito shows disapproval of Obama

  1. Closed captioning of: Justice Alito shows disapproval of Obama

    >> remember the camera catching joe wilson when the president gave his speech about health care , sort of to a joint session of congress . the president was talking about health care and joe wilson shouted out you lie. last night he was on his best behavior as were all the republican members of the house and senate and democrats, they were fine. what happened is there was the president last night talking about the supreme court decision that allows the corporations to spend a lot of money involved in the campaign finance system, and watch the reaction from sam alito , jut sam alito . watch.

    >> 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.

    >> so it appeared that justice alien toe was mouthing something like not true. a fascinating moment. let's bring on our nbc news justice correspondent pete williams with more on this. pete.

    >> everything about this was unusual. it's unusual for the president to in essence dress down the supreme court in the house chamber during a state of union message. it's unusual, too, for supreme court justices to show any reaction at all to the state of the union message. they usually sit there, they never applaud during the president's speech, and as a matter of fact this is why the former chief justice william rehnquist thought it was a bad idea for supreme court justices to attend. he said we sit there like bumps on a log, was the phrase he used to use, and that other people would think it looked odd that the supreme court just sat there. he said that the justices appear to be just props. now, justice alito through the court has had nothing to say about this. i wouldn't expect that we will hear anything from him. in terms of what exactly he was saying wasn't true in the president's speech, of course, it's not possible really to tell. there are two things that the president said that i suppose people will disagree with. some people will think the president was right. one is that the supreme court 's ruling explicitly applies to foreign corporations. the dissenters in the 5-4 opinion last week certainly thought so, but other people say, no, it's an open question. the other thing the president said is that corporations can spend without limit in our elections. it is true that they can under the supreme court 's decision spend as much as they want on advertising to support a candidate, but they can't contribute to candidates. is that spending without limit? well, you know, people may disagree on that, david.

    >> and pete, is this the sort of thing where the other justices might say or maybe chief justice roberts would say to justice ali alito, look, we have to sit there and take it. it's better for all of us to just not react?

    >> i'll put it this way, david. if the chief told justice alito that, we would never know it.

    >> indeed. nbc news supreme court and justice correspondent pete williams, thanks as always. we appreciate

NBC News and news services
updated 1/28/2010 1:19:53 PM ET 2010-01-28T18:19:53

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito didn't like hearing President Barack Obama publicly criticize the high court's ruling removing corporate campaign spending limits — and he didn't try to hide it.

Alito made a dismissive face, shook his head repeatedly and appeared to mouth the words "not true" or possibly "simply not true" when Obama assailed the decision Wednesday night in his State of the Union address.

The president had taken the unusual step of publicly scolding the high court, with some of its members in robes seated before him in the House. "With all due deference to the separation of powers," he said, the court last week "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."

It is unclear which part of Obama's statement about the ruling caused Alito's disagreement. There is disagreement among experts about whether the decision, as Obama claimed, would open unlimited campaign spending in U.S. elections to foreign businesses.

A reliable conservative appointed to the court by Republican President George W. Bush, Alito was in the majority in the 5-4 ruling.

Justices usually do not show any reaction at all to a president's statements during a State of the Union address. Alito has not made any public comment on his reaction Wednesday night.

White House reacts
White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton on Thursday defended the president's statement.

"One of the great things about our democracy is that powerful members of the government at high levels can disagree in public and private," Burton told reporters traveling with Obama to Tampa, Fla. "This is one of those cases. But the president is not less committed to seeing this reform."

Vice President Joe Biden also sided with Obama, calling the ruling "dead wrong" and saying "we have to correct it."

"The president didn't question the integrity of the court. He questioned the judgment of it," the vice president told ABC's "Good Morning America."

Senate Democratic leaders sitting immediately behind Alito and other members of the high court rose and clapped loudly in their direction, with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., leaning slightly forward with the most enthusiastic applause.

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On Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., echoed the president's criticism of the decision made by the court and slammed Alito for displaying his disagreement.

"There were days when judges stayed out of politics," he told NBC News. "It would be nice to go back to those days."

Republican John Cornyn, also a member of the Judiciary Committee, argued that Alito must have had an "irresistible impulse" to react to the president's open criticism of the decision.

"I don't think the president should have done what he did in trying to call out the Supreme Court for doing its job," Cornyn said. "They are the final word on the meaning of the United States Constitution, even when we don't like the outcome."

The court did upend a 100-year trend that had imposed greater limitations on corporate political activity. Specifically, the court, in a 5-4 decision, said corporations and unions could spend freely from their treasuries to run political ads for or against specific candidates.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the court's majority "would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans."

Obama said corporations can "spend without limit in our elections." However, corporations and unions are still prohibited from contributing directly to politicians.

NBC's Pete Williams, Kelly O'Donnell, and Ken Strickland contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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