No Problems With Today's Oath at the Supreme Court
It was back to normal at the Supreme Court this morning, and the only oath administered in the Court chamber was recited by the clerk of the Court. It went off without a hitch.
The Court was on the bench a day after the justices' supporting role in the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Chief Justice John Roberts' imperfect administration of the oath of office to Obama (which we wrote about here), is still generating debate. Some scholars are even suggesting that Obama should take the oath again just to be safe, since Roberts plunked the word "faithfully" in the wrong place.
After justices announced their opinions from the bench this morning, it was time for the admission of new members of the Supreme Court bar, a routine chore that calls for the chief justice to summon to the lectern current members of the bar who sponsor and then move the admission of the newcomers. After that process, the chief justice then tells the new members, "The clerk will administer the oath, but before he does so..." followed by a brief welcome by Roberts to the new members of the bar. It's a script that Roberts has recited dozens of times. Today, it seemed that Roberts put an extra emphasis on the word "clerk," as if to warn spectators that at the Court, the oath-giver is the clerk, and that his own oath-administering duties were thankfully behind him. Clerk William Suter proceeded to recite the oath, with no words omitted or transposed.
Commentary on the botched presidential oath has continued unabated in print and in the blogosphere. The New York Post, never shy, today dubbed Roberts the "Oaf of Office" and the irreverent Above the Law blog polled its readers to identify whether Roberts or Obama was to blame for the episode. The latest tally: 48.4 percent blamed Roberts, 16.7 percent blamed Obama, and 34.9 percent agreed with the statement, ""They both sucked. Long Live Harvard Law Review."
According to some press reports, Roberts accepted the blame and apologized to Obama in a conversation they had at the Capitol lunch after the swearing-in. Court officials are not confirming that version of the conversation, and Roberts is not commenting now. And so far, no request has come in for a do-over.
Questions raised about an oath did prompt at least one repeat performance in history. It was back in 1923 when Vice President Calvin Coolidge became president after Warren Harding's sudden death. Coolidge was at his father John's home in Vermont when the fateful telegram arrived reporting that Harding had died. The elder Coolidge was a justice of the peace and notary public, so he promptly administered the oath to his son.
According to Democracy's Big Day, a reference book on inaugurations by Jim Bendat, after Coolidge was sworn in, both Attorney General Harry Daugherty and Solicitor General James Beck voiced doubts that the father had authority to swear in anyone other than Vermont state officials. So in a ceremony at D.C.'s Willard Hotel, Coolidge was sworn in again -- 15 days after the first oath -- this time by Justice Adolphus Hoehling of the D.C. Superior Court.
Chief Justice William Howard Taft also garbled the oath when he swore in Herbert Hoover in 1929. Taft did not use the back-and-forth, prompt-then-repeat style of giving the oath, which helped trip up Roberts and Obama on Tuesday. Instead, Taft did it in the form of a command, beginning with "You, Herbert Hoover do solemnly swear..." followed by the entire oath, so that all Hoover had to say was, "I do." Not a bad idea, come to think of it, except that Taft's recitation of the oath had Hoover swearing to "preserve, maintain, and defend" the Constitution instead of the "preserve, protect, and defend" formulation set forth in the Constitution.
In that pre-blog era, according to Bendat's book, the only one to notice the error was an eighth-grade girl from upstate New York who heard the blunder on the radio. She wrote Taft, who replied that he was quite sure he had made a different error, stating "preserve, maintain and protect." He chalked up the error to "an old man's memory."
But that was not the end of it. The schoolgirl, named Helen Terwilliger, stuck to her guns, and the dispute became something of a public controversy. Three newsreel companies checked their tapes and pronounced the girl correct. Taft eventually confessed error, but shrugged it off. "After all, I don't think it's important." Apparently it wasn't; Hoover was not sworn in again.
Footnote: ABC News is reporting that at one of the inaugural balls last night, Obama offered this explanation of Tuesday's oath malfunction: "We were up there, we've got a lot of stuff on our minds. He actually, I think, helped me out on a couple of stanzas there. Overall, I think it went relatively smoothly and I'm very grateful to him."