The XX Factor

Leave Alito Alone

You would think, reading this morning’s SOTU coverage , that Justice Samuel Alito stood up last night, ripped off his robe, and howled like a werewolf when President Obama criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Please. What probably happened-what inevitably happens to the one collective of American public officials who are completely shielded from public view-is that Alito was offended at the Obama’s high sticking, muttered “not true” under his breath, and failed to realize that it would turn it into the gotcha moment of the night.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the president’s criticism of the court’s decision, although as Linda Greenhouse points out, he was less than precise in his description of the holding. But there was also absolutely nothing inappropriate about the justice’s reaction to him. Both the president and the justices are political actors, and all are entitled to screw up their faces and grumble in public as they see fit. Anyone who’s watched Alito at oral argument at the high court knows that he screws up his face and mutters to himself all the time. The suggestion that he was showboating or grandstanding last night is spectacularly unfair. Unlike several of his colleagues, Alito is meticulously polite, balanced, and measured on the bench, and goes out of his way to shun big drama. I’m sure if Alito could take it back this morning he would. I’m equally sure that if he attends the next SOTU at all, he won’t move so much as a muscle.

Photograph of Samuel Alito and Barack Obama by Alex Wong/Getty Images.