American Bar Association

ABA President Says Obama's Initial Remarks on Judicial Activism Are 'Troubling'

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ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is taking issue with President Obama’s initial remarks about the U.S. Supreme Court and the health care law.

Last Monday, Obama said a decision to overturn the law would be an “unprecedented, extraordinary” step of judicial activism. On Tuesday, Obama clarified his statement, saying that the Supreme Court does have final authority. Obama’s remarks led one federal judge to demand a three-page single-spaced memo from the Department of Justice explaining the administration’s views on the authority of the courts.

Robinson weighed in this weekend with an online statement that was excerpted in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal.

“President Barack Obama’s remarks on Monday speculating about the Supreme Court’s potential decision in the health care legislation appeal are troubling,” Robinson writes. “Particularly worrisome was his suggestion that the court’s decision in this case could serve as a ‘good example’ of what some commentators have cited as ‘judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint’ by an ‘unelected group of people.’ We’re gratified that the president recast his remarks Tuesday. He clarified appropriately that ‘the Supreme Court is the final say on our Constitution and our laws, and all of us have to respect it.’ “

Robinson goes on to say that the legitimacy of judicial review was settled more than 200 years ago in Marbury v. Madison. “It is incumbent on all of our elected officials—including those aspiring to hold office—to continually demonstrate that the courtroom is not a political arena,” Robinson says. “It is a measure of a free society that individuals are able to openly disagree with court decisions, but we should expect our leaders to refrain from partisan statements aimed at judges fulfilling their constitutional role and responsibilities.”

Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, is also criticizing Obama’s remarks. In a statement, Brandenburg says the president “did a significant public disservice by invoking phrases too often used to demonize our nation’s courts.” Courts need to be free from political pressure if they are going to apply the law fairly, he says.

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