Updated with Politico transcript: The Washington Times first reported Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted President Obama on Thursday, telling him to "back off" from comments earlier this week where he appeared to question the constitutional powers of the Supreme Court and the possibility that it could overturn his health care law.
"The president crossed a dangerous line this week," the Kentucky Republican said to the Lexington Rotary Club, "and anyone who cares about liberty needs to call him out on it. The independence of the court must be defended."
On Monday, Mr. Obama suggested it would be "activist" and an "unprecedented, extraordinary step" for the nine "unelected" justices to overturn the law, prompting outcries from leading Republicans and many legal scholars that he was trying to intimidate the court.
The president later narrowed his comments, saying the court hasn’t overturned economic regulation like the Affordable Care Act since the New Deal era. Saying the court’s decision must be respected, Mr. Obama added that he believed the justices take their responsibilities "very seriously."
McConnell’s full prepared remarks from Politico follow:
I had originally planned to come over here today to talk about the economy and jobs. But President Obama made some comments about the Supreme Court earlier this week that troubled me, and that should trouble every American, frankly, and they demand a firm response. So if you’ll allow me, I’d like to start with that.
First, some context. As you’re all aware, last week the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against the President’s health care law. This is the same bill Congress passed two years ago on Christmas Eve on a straight party-line vote by the slimmest of margins after some backroom deals got it over the finish line. This bill is still deeply controversial. And if you believe the polls, most Americans think it’s unconstitutional.
Well, fortunately, in matters of constitutional interpretation, we’ve got a final arbiter in this country, and that’s the Supreme Court. So I and many others brought our legal arguments to the Court last week. And after a careful study of the law and the precedents, and after weighing the arguments on both sides, the Court will make its final determination. Whether I agree with it or not, I’ll respect the decision.
But, apparently, President Obama didn’t like the tenor of some of the questions the justices asked about the health care law during last week’s hearings, questions that highlighted the unprecedented power that the administration now has over your and everybody else’s health care as a result of its passage.
So earlier this week, the President did something that as far as I know is completely unprecedented: he not only tried to publicly pressure the Court into deciding a pending case in the way he wants it decided; he also questioned its very authority under the Constitution.
And if anybody had any doubt about that, it should have been dispelled on Tuesday, when a federal appeals court ordered an administration lawyer to clarify whether the administration does, in fact, believe that the courts of the United States of America have the right to determine whether laws passed by Congress violate the Constitution. This was a clear response to the President’s comments from earlier in the week, and proof positive of the signal it sent to the judiciary.
Now, the President’s words were particularly troubling given his past treatment of the Court. Two years ago, he used a State of the Union Address to publicly chastise the Court for its decision in another case he didn’t like — with members of the Court sitting just a few feet away.
He looked at the line that wisely separates the three branches of government, and stepped right over it. But what the President did this week went even farther. With his words, he was no longer trying to embarrass the Court after a decision; rather, he tried to intimidate it before a decision has been made. And that should be intolerable to all of us.
Let me be clear: I have no idea what the court will decide in this case. My own preference is well known. If the Court upholds the law, I’ll be disappointed. I’ll disagree with it. But I’ll respect its independence. And then I’ll continue to do everything I can to have this law repealed through the legislative channels that remain available.
But here’s something I won’t do: I won’t mount a political campaign to delegitimize the Court in the way some in Congress have been urging this President to do, and in the way that he started to do earlier this week in the Rose Garden. I’ll respect the Supreme Court, even when I disagree with it.
Why? Because at the end of the day, it’s the judiciary that ensures we’re a nation ruled by laws, not the whim of a President or a particular Congress. That’s why the Founders made sure the people who sit on the courts have lifetime appointments. It’s why the Constitution explicitly prohibits Congress from lowering their pay. It’s why justices enjoy the freedom to decide cases as they see fit, even if it means upsetting the very President who appointed them.
The truth is, if this law’s in trouble, it’s because giving the government this much power is hard to defend, not because a few justices had the temerity to suggest as much.
But the President seems to be saying that you’re an activist if you’re not stretching the limits of the limited powers the Constitution gives to the federal government.
This is not about what I think of the President as a person. It’s what I think of the duties of the office he’s sworn to uphold.
We can all disagree about the merits of a President’s policies. But the American people should be able to expect that their President will defend the independence of the Court, not undermine it, safeguarding and strengthening our country’s institutions, not actively weakening them.
The President crossed a dangerous line this week. And anyone who cares about liberty needs to call him out on it. The independence of the Court must be defended. Regardless of how the justices decide this case, they’re answerable, above all, to the Constitution they swore to uphold. The fact that this President does not appear to feel similarly constrained to respect their independence doesn’t change that one bit.
So respectfully, I would suggest the President back off.
Let the Court do its work. Let our system work the way it was intended. The stability of our system and our laws and our very government depends on it. And the duties of the Presidency demand it.