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Justice openly disagrees with Obama in speech

The man in the House chamber openly disagreeing with President Barack Obama as he spoke to Congress wasn't an over-the-top Republican or a seething Democrat. He was a Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

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

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.

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.