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Spoofs & Satire

Judicial Sensibilities

When the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the president get into a tiff, could the nation’s highest court fall to pieces?

Chief justice Hughes addressing joint congressional session, 1939

Chief Justice John G. Roberts said Tuesday that the scene at President Obama’s State of the Union address was “very troubling” and that the speech had “degenerated to a political pep rally.” In his speech, the president chided the Supreme Court, with the justices seated before him, for its decision on a campaign finance case. Responding to a University of Alabama law student’s question, Chief Justice Roberts said that anyone was free to criticize the court, but that “the image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court—according the requirements of protocol—has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.”—Associated Press, March 9, 2010

Reuters, March 30, 2010: The Supreme Court announced today that, until further notice, all pending cases will be summarily affirmed by a four-to-four vote. According to sources, Justice Anthony Kennedy has informed Chief Justice John Roberts that he is tired of “occupying the dead center of the court” on so many controversial cases, including those involving abortion, corporate speech, detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and environmental policy. Although he has chosen to remain on the court, Justice Kennedy reportedly told the chief justice that he no longer wants to participate in the decision of cases. “I am tired of sitting here, metaphorically surrounded by four conservatives and four liberals, having to make hard choices that everybody else criticizes,” Justice Kennedy said. “I think my colleagues’ lack of respect for my idiosyncrasies is very troubling.”

Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2010: Associate Justice Clarence Thomas abruptly rose from his seat and left the bench during oral argument today in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The walkout occurred after Solicitor General Elena Kagan replied to Justice Thomas’s question about the purposes of the “free exercise of religion” clause of the Constitution. Ms. Kagan stated that she “respectfully disagreed with” his reading of the history of the enactment and ratification of the First Amendment. Justice Thomas was heard to mutter as he left the courtroom, “I ask one damn question a year, and this is the respect I get?” The Supreme Court Public Information Office later clarified that Justice Thomas was uncertain whether he should continue to attend the court’s public sessions if “the oral arguments are going to degenerate into some kind of debating society.”

Justice Thomas was heard to mutter as he left the courtroom, “I ask one damn question a year, and this is the respect I get?”New York Times, May 26, 2010: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has notified Martha Minnow, dean of the Harvard Law School, that she will not deliver the commencement address at tomorrow’s law school graduation ceremonies. The surprise announcement came after Justice Sotomayor learned that 83 percent of Harvard’s faculty are Red Sox fans. According to Dean Minnow, Justice Sotomayor said in an email regarding her change of plans that she “did not want to have to sit expressionless on the dais surrounded by people cheering and hollering that the Yankees suck. People are, of course, free to root for whichever team they choose, but I find it very troubling that a community of scholars would be so biased.”

Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2010: Justice Antonin Scalia announced his retirement today after four of his colleagues filed a dissenting opinion in the case of McDonald v. City of Chicago. The dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, disagreed with the court’s conclusion that the right to keep and bear arms set forth in the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments. “The majority have ignored both the framer’s intentions and the needs of our contemporary society,” Justice Stevens wrote. Justice Scalia, who authored the majority opinion, said in his resignation letter, “The image of having the members of my own branch of government criticizing my judgment on legal matters, I think, is very troubling. They are free to have their own opinions, but I don’t need to hear them.” Sources familiar with the situation at the court said Justice Scalia is likely to return to his prior employment as a law professor.

Washington Post, July 10, 2010: A high-ranking member of the federal judicial system has informed the Post that Justice Stephen Breyer has severed all ties with his family after a relative called him “Chuck” at a family gathering on July 4th. Justice Breyer’s younger brother, Charles Breyer, is a federal district court judge in San Francisco. Although the unnamed relative quickly corrected the mistake and referred to Justice Breyer as “Mr. Justice” for the remainder of the party, the justice refused to accept the apology. According to the source, Justice Breyer could barely contain his anger: “I find it very troubling that my own family doesn’t seem to know the difference between a trial judge and a Supreme Court justice. This is an inexcusable breach of family protocol, and I simply will not tolerate it.”

Time, Aug. 9, 2010: According to a new book that will be published on Friday, President Barack Obama considered resigning the presidency after last January’s State of the Union address. The authors of The Mendacity of Hope, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, claim that Mr. Obama’s moment of doubt came after Justice Samuel Alito mouthed the words “Not true” in response to the president’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s decision striking down corporate campaign spending limits in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Heilemann and Halperin write that President Obama was shaken by the outburst:

“First they mess up my inauguration,” he wailed to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as they left the Capitol. “And now this. I don’t ever want to stand up there again—literally with the nine of them staring me in the face—and take that kind of abuse.”

According to the authors, Emanuel was able to buoy the president’s spirits by reminding him that “They are just nine $%!#s in black robes.”

Brian Gray is a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. His previous observations on law, politics, and Arsenal Football Club have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journal, and on his web pages. He also serves as an after-school tutor and board member of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and literacy center in San Francisco’s Mission District. More by Brian E. Gray