State of the Union: SCOTUS Shrugged

The XX Factor
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Jan. 26 2011 12:11 AM

State of the Union: SCOTUS Shrugged

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Well, the good news for the Supreme Court after the State of the Union is that they won’t be the headline tomorrow. Six justices in attendance, Chief Justice John Roberts looking crinkley-eyed at the helm, Stephen Breyer in jaunty dark glasses and everyone else looking deeply relieved that the bride’s side and groom’s side had all been scrambled. You really can’t hold a "partisan pep rally" (quoting the chief justice) if nobody knows when to cheer, hiss, or even laugh. And you can’t be mad at the president when his most radical new legal initiative for the evening is tort reform.

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Someone should let the other justices know that all of the partisan awkwardness really can be drained out of the evening, until virtually everyone in the room is rendered a proverbial potted plant (quoting Justice Alito). Maybe it’s even something to aspire to. And with the president’s speech careening strangely between the Jetsons (space travel! High-speed rail! Facebook!) and the Flintstones (learning begins at home! The federal government is so wasteful!) it was hard to discern whether the plan is to win the future or to settle in and hope for the past.

Bipartisanship and civility can be dull and confusing, and nobody knows that better than the Supreme Court. There seems to be some sentiment in the twitterverse that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in fact asleep through much of the speech, but it appeared to me that she was mainly just reading along with the printed text and then periodically rummaging in her purse for something -- maybe Justice Alito. So, nothing to see here folks, the court more or less faded back into the SOTU scenery this year, which is where they most longed to be in the first place. Pete Williams says that six justices is a record-high number of Supreme Court attendees at the State of the Union for the past 16 years, so score this as a win for the president. More importantly, score it as a big win for the court.

Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

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