Other voices: Judicial pique, politics

President Barack Obama greeted Chief Justice John Roberts as he arrived for State of the Union speech.
President Barack Obama greeted Chief Justice John Roberts as he arrived for State of the Union speech. MCT

The decision by Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas to skip President Barack Obama's State of the Union address has been widely interpreted as payback for Obama's criticism of the court in last year's speech. If so, it's one more step in a worrisome politicization of the court.

The Supreme Court is the guardian of its own integrity. That means staying above politics and maintaining an air of dispassionate consideration of constitutional issues. The court is not an elected body, and shouldn't function like one. Justices set their own rules, and the need for comity largely prevents them from policing each other. Their shared commitment to maintaining judicial decorum is all that binds them.

That commitment has been fraying. Scalia has made himself an evangelical force in conservative legal circles, and regularly delivers pep talks to the Federalist Society. His decision to address an event earlier this week organized by GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus was fairly typical. There have been parallel lapses by others, principally Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose decision to allow the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to name a lectureship for her, and then to attend the lecture, was unwise.

Now, the court's three most conservative justices, all Republican appointees, have chosen to skip the State of the Union address of a Democratic president. Obama is in no position to complain, because his scolding of the court last year over its campaign-finance decision was rude and self-serving. But he's a politician. The justices may claim, as some have suggested, that skipping the State of the Union is a way of demonstrating their independence, but it isn't. Showing up isn't a political gesture; boycotting it is. Chief Justice John Roberts, who had wavered about attending, seems to have realized this and agreed to lead the court contingent. He deserves credit for putting the court's reputation ahead of his own sense of pique.

Guest editorials do not necessarily reflect Herald-Leader views.