WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House squared off on Thursday against conservative critics who questioned whether President Barack Obama had gone too far by condemning a Supreme Court decision in his State of the Union address to Congress.
Obama’s very public criticism of the ruling was highly unusual for a president, and it drew a visible reaction from Justice Samuel Alito, who was shown on television shaking his head and apparently mouthing the words “not true.”
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling last week said long-standing campaign finance limits violated the constitutional free-speech rights of corporations. Critics said it opened the door to massive corporate spending on national elections.
“With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court 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,” said Obama, a constitutional lawyer.
“I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests or, worse, by foreign entities,” he said, urging Congress to pass a new law to help correct the problem.
The Supreme Court is considered a co-equal power along with the presidency and the Congress under the U.S. Constitution, which demands a separation of the judicial, executive and legislative branches of government to prevent abuse of power.
Justices are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The court originally was far weaker than the other branches, and since that time presidents, while chafing at its rulings, have generally avoided action that could erode its authority.
Alito had no comment on the controversy, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said.
The White House said the president disagreed with Alito’s legal position on the issue. As a senator, Obama voted against Alito’s confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. Alito, a member of the court’s five-member conservative majority, was appointed by then-President George W. Bush.
“One of the great things about our democracy is that powerful members of the government at high levels can disagree in public and in private,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said. “This is one of those cases.”
Obama’s remarks quickly came under fire after the speech Wednesday to a joint session of Congress. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the president was “completely wrong” about the case.
He said contrary to Obama’s assertion, federal regulations as well as a law untouched by the court ruling barred foreign nationals or foreign corporations from making contributions to U.S. election campaigns.
“The court ruled unconstitutional sections of federal law that barred corporations and unions from spending their own money to express their views about issues and candidates,” McConnell said. “This was the right decision because democracy depends upon free speech, not just for some but for all.”
His comments echoed those of the independent FactCheck.org, which concluded it was unclear whether the court’s ruling would lead to a flood of campaign advertising by foreign-based companies because a law still on the books bars them from spending money on U.S. elections.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election, questioned Obama’s truthfulness.
“When we see an issue like this, words spoken that may not be true coming from our president and embarrassing our Supreme Court and not respecting the separation of powers, we have a problem,” said Palin, now a commentator for Fox television.
She said those sorts of comments were the reason “people are disenchanted and are becoming more disengaged” from government, “and that’s illustrated there by that justice mouthing those words, ‘Not true.’”
Vice President Joe Biden defended Obama’s remarks. “The president didn’t question the integrity of the court or the decision that they made,” Biden told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. “He questioned the judgment of it.”
The White House issued a fact sheet defending Obama’s statements, noting that the four justices who dissented from the decision had raised concerns that it would open the door to unchecked spending by foreign-owned corporations.
But the majority decision in the case indicated the ruling was not addressing the question of whether the government could act to prevent foreign individuals or associations from influencing U.S. elections.
Additional reporting by Jim Vicini; Editing by Paul Simao and Chris Wilson