From nodding off to spouting off: How the Supreme Court can make news at the State of the Union
WASHINGTON – They sit in the front row but the Supreme Court justices who show up to the annual State of the Union are not the focus of the address – until they are.
Generally low key and eager to keep the spotlight as far away as possible, the usually small contingent of Supreme Court justices who attend the president's speech have occasionally found themselves at the center of viral moments on the House floor.
Here are a few such notable scenes from previous State of the Union addresses.
Hand on his heart: Shy Breyer
The Supreme Court rarely comes up as a State of the Union topic, but President Joe Biden had good reason to raise the high court during his address last year. Associate Justice Stephen Breyer's retirement became public weeks earlier, and Biden wanted to prime the confirmation pump for his successor, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
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Biden gave more than a short shout-out to Breyer, nominated to the nation's highest court in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. Biden's words prompted a standing ovation – joined by the other justices, who rarely applaud at all. In a moment that would quickly become an internet meme, Breyer briefly covered his face with his hands – and then covered his heart, mouthing the words "thank you" over and over.
Push back: Alito reacts to Obama
In a more contentious moment, Associate Justice Samuel Alito was seen on television in 2010 shaking his head and mouthing the words "not true" as President Barack Obama took the rare step of criticizing the court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That decision, handed down days earlier, established the right of corporations and unions to make unlimited, independent political expenditures.
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Obama said that the decision would "open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations." That appeared to be the line that prompted Alito's reaction, which was replayed on cable television news for days. Alito hasn't attended the speech since.
Nodding off: RBG not '100% sober'
For the late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the political spectacle of the State of the Union address apparently just wasn't all that compelling. Ginsburg was frequently spotted nodding off. She acknowledged as much and, in 2015, offered an explanation.
"I wasn't 100% sober," Ginsburg admitted.
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Before the address, some of the justices got together for dinner. Ginsburg had sworn she would stick to water, but "the dinner was so delicious," she said, "it needed wine."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: From Alito to Breyer, Supreme Court moments at the State of the Union