Jonathan Chait

Alito And Our Squeamish Republic

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Last year, Joe "You Lie!" Wilson earned the scorn of the establishment. Last night, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito came under criticism. His crime? Being caught on camera expressing disagreement in response to criticism from the president. This emerged as a minor theme of the cable talking head wrapups, and the New York Times reported, "Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., breaking with decorum at such events, shook his head and appeared to mouth the words, 'No, it’s not true.'"

Have we really gotten so squeamish? I haven't seen a convincing explanation as to why it's so awful for Republicans to disagree with a presidential speech. The answer is "decorum," but to me, decorum suggests giving latitude to the opposition. The State of the Union, remember, was originally delivered elsewhere in order to avoid the appearance of a president dictating to Congress. Forcing Congress and the Supreme Court to defer to the president as a ceremonial head of state, rather than the head of a co-equal branch of government, runs counter to the deepest spirit of our form of government.

Moreover, it represents the Washington establishment's prudish aversion to debate. I can see why a loud outburst might be objectionable -- though I'd prefer a feisty back-and-forth, like in Great Britain -- but to scold Alito merely for moving his lips in such a way as to show disapproval seems to be taking the prudishness to a new extreme. Yes, he's a Supreme Court Justice and we're supposed to believe he has no political beliefs or agenda, but in the post Bush v. Gore world it's a little late for that.

Besides, as Linda Greenhouse reports, Alito was right. Shouldn't that count for something?

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