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Alito Was Rude (But Right)

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Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito made headlines last night when he nodded and mouthed "It's not true" in response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Facing six of the nine Justices, who were sitting right up front, Obama criticized the recent landmark Supreme Court decision striking down limits on corporate political speech.

Alito was right. The president was wrong about the Supreme Court decision. Obama said, "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections."

Halfway through this sentence, Alito started to nod vigorously to express his disagreement. Then he mouthed, "It's not true." Some people are saying that Alito is this year's Joe Wilson, who infamously shouted, "You lie" during an Obama speech to Congress.

There are a lot of grounds to criticize the Supreme Court's campaign finance decision. It will allow corporations to spend shareholder money to influence the election of candidates many of those shareholders don't support. And it does open up a loophole that allows foreign corporations to influence federal elections through their U.S. subsidiaries.

But the Court did not overturn "a century of law." The provision upended by the Court was only seven years old. It was a novel innovation of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law adopted during the Bush Administration.

There is "a century of law" restricting direct corporate contributions to candidates. Last week's decision didn't address that law. While the logic of the opinion -- which says corporate speech is entitled to the same protection as individual speech -- calls into question the corporate contribution ban, it doesn't overturn it. And the Court has traditionally treated direct contributions differently from so-called "independent expenditures" -- ads that discuss candidates but financed by private parties without the candidate's help.

Alito may have been right on the facts, but his nodding was still remarkably bad form.

Longstanding tradition holds that Supreme Court Justices sit silently during the State of the Union. Unlike the senators and representatives, they don't stand up and clap for things they agree with. The Justices are supposed to stay about the political fray.

If Justices shouldn't stand and clap when they agree, they shouldn't nod vigorously and mouth their disagreement when they think the president is wrong. Staying above the fray goes both ways.

You know Washington has become way too partisan when Supreme Court Justices can't even control themselves.