opinion

COLUMN: The Supreme Court should skip the State of the Union



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The Supreme Court of the United States is in Washington, D.C. Four of the nine Supreme Court justices were present for last week’s State of the Union.  Tribune News Service Buy Photos

Chief Justice Roberts was joined only by Associate Justices Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh at last week's State of the Union Address. The justices arrived, sat expressionless for the duration of the address and left. It begs the question: should the Supreme Court even attend the Address?

The State of the Union is undoubtedly a partisan event. The Supreme Court is an inherently nonpartisan institution. The two don’t mix. 

The attendance of court serves no purpose, except to put the justices in a visibly uncomfortable position and align the judiciary with the political branches of government. 

There’s no legal responsibility for the justices to attend, and the address can just as easily be submitted in writing to the court to avoid the political spectacle.

In 2010, Roberts said the court’s presence at the State of the Union presented a “troubling image” to the American people – one that depicts an expressionless third branch surrounded by partisan cheers and jeers. 

Roberts has attended every State of the Union during his tenure on the court, but just this past Wednesday remarked that he is “back and forth” on whether the justices should attend. 

The optics of court’s attendance at what the chief called a “political pep rally” serves to compromise its status as an independent and nonpartisan branch of government.

Justice John Paul Stevens never attended a State of the Union Address during his 35-year tenure. The late Justice Antonin Scalia called the address a “childish spectacle” and an overtly political event. He did not attend a single address after 1997. 

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, both reliable no-shows, have separately said that the event is too partisan and uncomfortable for justices to endure. Justice Ginsburg fell asleep during Former President Obama’s 2013 and 2015 State of the Union addresses and hasn’t attended any during the President Trump's administration. 

There seems to be a general consensus among the justices that the State of the Union just isn’t worth the political side effects — or their time.

Using empirical data, political scientists at the University of North Carolina concluded that increased partisanship and polarization in government makes justices less likely to attend the State of the Union. From 1970-2010, the attendance of Supreme Court justices at State of the Union Addresses significantly declined. 

Justice Breyer, who in 2011 said that the Supreme Court’s presence at the State of the Union was “very, very, very important,” was not in attendance for President Trump’s 2019 address.

The justice’s recent reluctance to attend is understandable considering the degree of hyper-partisanship and polarization that has plagued the political climate for the past decade or so. 

It’s undoubtedly important for people to be exposed to the Supreme Court, but the State of the Union is an improper venue. The court’s presence at what has morphed into a political rally is inappropriate and weakens its integrity as a nonpolitical and equal branch of government. 

To remain fully insulated from Congress and the Executive branch, the entire Supreme Court should skip the State of the Union. 

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