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Supreme Discomfort on Inauguration Day

Will there be a hint of frost in the air today as Barack Obama is inaugurated as president of the United States? I am not referring to the weather; the frost I am talking about would come from the chilly reception Obama might feel from at least two justices of the Supreme Court. Three articles published over the weekend examine the parallels and the differences between Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts and Obama and Justice Clarence Thomas. While each article finds parallels of one sort or another, all three conclude that these three powerful men are more defined by their differences.

Let us start with Chief Justice Roberts, who will administer the presidential oath of office. Both Dahlia Lithwick writing in Newsweek and Linda Greenhouse writing in The New York Times suggest that the Obama/Roberts pairing brings us full circle from the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was sworn in by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney four years after Taney wrote the opinion in the pro-slavery Dred Scott case. If there was no love lost between Lincoln and Taney that long-ago day, what will be the mood on the podium today?

Both Lithwick and Greenhouse remind us that Obama was one of 22 Democratic senators who voted against Roberts' confirmation. Greenhouse quotes Obama saying about Roberts, "It is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak." They have continued to differ on a number of issues, notably the extent of executive power. Greenhouse portrays them as two divergent faces of a generation:

What is most striking about the two men who will meet at arm’s length, the Lincoln Bible between them, is the difference in the paths that brought them to this moment. In this tableau, they represent two faces of a generation that grew to adulthood after Vietnam, after the fantasies and tragedies of the 1960s, after the civil rights marches were over, when the cities were still smoldering but no longer burning.

Noting that the two met last week under a portrait of Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the only president to become a Supreme Court justice, Greenhouse wonders whether, after today, Obama and Roberts might someday see their paths cross again as colleagues the high court. Lithwick, on the other hand, says the two have more in common than might appear:

Both are gifted attorneys. Both are charismatic and respected by peers across the ideological spectrum. Both claim to seek unanimity and moderation. And both are devoted to putting America's racial divisions behind us, even if they would disagree on the mechanism. Roberts and Obama certainly differ on presidential powers and judicial philosophy. But that will matter not at all this week when they stand side by side and swear on a Bible once held by two men who could never have imagined this day would come.

If Greenhouse and Lithwick see at least grounds for mutual respect between Obama and Roberts, Gregory Allen Howard, writing at Huffington Post, sees only seething resentment of Obama in Justice Clarence Thomas:

Watch him as he sits but a few feet away from Barack Obama at the swearing in ceremony. Watch the furious, suppressed envy in his eyes. The hatred. The jealousy. In his small, simple brain he thinks: Him? That should be me taking the oath of office. I've done everything they wanted.

Just as Greenhouse contrasted the careers of Obama and Roberts, Howard, a Hollywood screen writer, does the same for Obama and Thomas. But he calls Thomas' career a "fictional narrative" and argues that Thomas resents Obama for pointing it out when he once called the justice unqualified for the Supreme Court.

Thomas, angry, bitter and unqualified will have to look at this man who revealed him for the fraud that he is for the next 8 years. Once a year at the State of the Union, Thomas will sit just a few feet from Obama. He will have to watch him and listen to him, his eloquence, his command. That will be difficult for Clarence. It will be so painful that Thomas may actually implode; he may even explode. We could only hope...

So as you watch the inauguration today, do as Howard suggests: Pay careful attention to the eyes of all three men. As Chief Justice Roberts administers the oath, as Obama lays his hand on the Bible that Taney held for Lincoln, as Justice Thomas looks on, see if you can read into their eyes their thoughts about the drama of the moment.

Postscript: For yet another take on today's face-off between Obama and Roberts, see Robert Barnes' piece today in The Washington Post.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 20, 2009 at 09:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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