Six justices attended the State of the Union address tonight, one more than last year. On hand were Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Last year, Sotomayor was absent, attending a judicial conference in Guam. Tonight, it appeared that Sotomayor, whose memoir is topping bestseller lists, received a burst of recognition in the form of applause.
Absent from the House chamber, unsurprisingly, were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. All three have criticized the occasion as a political event that is inappropriate for justices to attend.
In 2010, Thomas told a Stetson University audience, "it has become so partisan and it’s very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there … there’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV - the catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments.”
Alito, who caused a sensation in 2010 by mouthing "not true" when Obama criticized the court, has made it clear since that he has no interest in attending. Justices have to sit "like the proverbial potted plant," he said, and must be careful when they applaud.
For his part, Scalia has called the State of the Union address a "juvenile spectacle" at which justices must sit "like bumps on a log," while members of Congress cheer or jeer depending on what the president says.
Chief Justice Roberts also joined in the criticism in 2010, calling it a "political pep rally" that is uncomfortable for justices to attend. But Roberts has attended nonetheless, as he did tonight, perhaps because of his role as chief justice, and also to soften the perception that justices themselves are acting politically by attending or not showing up.