A lot has been said about last week's flap over President Obama's scolding of the Supreme Court during the State of the Union. FDR was the last president who criticized a particular Supreme Court decision in a State of the Union speech. Justice Alito's mouthing the words "that's not true" in response have also been much-criticized, even by those who acknowledge that the justice was correct. I don't want to repeat everything that's been said, but I did notice something that I haven't seen anyone else picking up on.
Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.
I don't think what he said about Bush's Supreme Court nominees was all that respectful. He basically accused Roberts of having a callous heart toward the weak and being dismissive of attempts to eradicate discrimination. Then two paragraphs later he complained that Democrats were attacking Senator Leahy's motivations for supporting Roberts, as if it's bad to attack people's motives, something he'd just spent a couple paragraphs doing with Roberts.
Of course, then-Senator Obama's arguments against then-Judge Alito applied just as strongly to then-Judge Sotomayor when President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court. So he has a history of making charges about the assumed motivations of conservative judges but unwilling to hold his own nominations to the same standard.
It strikes me as disingenuous and extremely unfair to assume hidden motives when judges and justices actually give arguments for their decisions. It might also be unfair and uncharitable to assume a line like this one must mean he thought they were intentionally doing this to achieve the bad result he predicts will happen, but that is the most natural way to read the sentence he used (and I'm sure this speech underwent much effort to get it just right). I do hope this line in the speech wasn't intentional on his part, because I don't like the kind of partisan spirit that attributes bad motives to those who disagree. But I see exactly that kind of partisan spirit in President Obama's consistent stance toward judges who are to his right but well within the mainstream, and that inclines me to think he probably wouldn't change a line like that if someone pointed out to him that it seems to indicate that he's attributing bad motives to these judges.
I have a feeling that's exactly what he wants to convey, because it's a way of dirtying those he disagrees with without sounding as mean as he would if he just talked explicitly about bad motives. It's an effective way of motivating the base who agrees with him while flying under the radar of those who might miss the nuance of language, and in this case the fact that his fact-checkers allowed him to misrepresent the decision so badly led critics to focus entirely on the issues of fact, with some also criticizing him for his nearly-unprecedented move of criticizing a recent Supreme Court decision in a State of the Union. No one seems to have noticed the attribution of bad motives. My suspicion is that Justice Alito did, however, and I have to wonder if that's more what he was responding to than the misinterpretation of the decision that came after. From watching the video, assuming the audio is synced properly, I have to say that the timing of his response suggests so.