Why Supreme Court Justice May Have Been So Annoyed at the President’s State of the Union Address

At the president’s recent State of the Union address, he misleadingly attacked the Supreme Court for supposedly “reversing a century of law” restricting corporate spending on political campaigns in its ruling this month in Citizens United v. FEC.

In response, an annoyed Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was attending the speech as an invited guest, apparently mouthed the words “not true,” although his words were not audible and did not interrupt the president’s speech.  (Obama was criticizing a Supreme Court ruling that struck down a recent federal restriction on corporations’ ability to criticize politicians.  The ruling, which was based on the First Amendment, said it was not invalidating a century-old 1907 law that bans corporations from making donations to politicians, who have long leaned on corporations to give money to their pet causes.  The ruling also did not lift restrictions on foreign corporations.  I earlier explained in the New York Times why corporations logically do have free speech rights.)

Maybe Justice Alito’s annoyance was cumulative, and based as much on the president’s past lies about an earlier Supreme Court ruling authored by Alito, as on his misleading criticism of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.   Past lies make later falsehoods seem less like innocent mistakes.

In his 2008 campaign, and again in 2009, Obama criticized Justice Alito’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which did not, contrary to the president’s claims, create a rigid 180 day deadline for bringing pay discrimination claims after an employee’s pay is set, regardless of whether the worker couldn’t have discovered the discrimination until years later.  (The deadline was 180 days, with various common-sense exceptions for hoodwinked employees, under one federal law, called Title VII.  But it is generally three years under another federal law, the Equal Pay Act, that also has more generous accrual rules.  Most employees could evade the short deadline of Title VII simply by having the sense to sue under the Equal Pay Act as well.  Alito’s ruling left workers with ample time to sue over discrimination, contrary to what Obama claimed.  Lilly Ledbetter lost her discrimination case because she waited until 1998 to file a complaint, despite admitting in her deposition that she knew her pay was low by 1992.)
I documented this in my commentary about the Supreme Court last yearNational Journal’s Stuart Taylor (a critic of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in favor of corporations), and lawyers Paul Mirengoff and Ed Whelan, also described how Obama repeatedly distorted what the Supreme Court said in the Ledbetter case.