Obama Flubs Facts on Supreme Court Case, Carl Hulse Glides Right By

But his colleagues David Kirkpatrick and Linda Greenhouse nabbed Obama on his SOTU misstatement that: "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections."
Congressional reporter Carl Hulse blew another Obama speech to a joint session of Congress.

In his Thursday "Reporter's Notebook" entry on Obama's State of the Union address, Hulse failed to challenge the false charge Obama made against the Supreme Court regarding foreign political donations in U.S. elections.

Obama said during Wednesday night's State of the Union Address: "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections."

Hulse wrote:

While he was in a scolding mood, the president did not spare the Supreme Court, which is usually part of the pageantry of the State of the Union but not part of the substance.

With Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and other members of the court seated in front, Mr. Obama, a constitutional lawyer, scolded the court for last week reversing "a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections."

Chief Justice Roberts's expression did not change, but, as Democratic Senate leaders stood behind him and applauded, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. scowled noticeably and shook his head.

It was a remarkable moment to many. "I have never seen the president go after the Supreme Court," said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and a 35-year veteran of Congress.

Hulse failed to correct Obama's misstatement, but his colleague David Kirkpatrick caught it in a fact-check published on the opposite page:

The president appeared to have mischaracterized the Supreme Court's decision to overturn restrictions on corporate-paid political commercials by suggesting that the decision invited political advertisements by foreign companies, too.

"Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections," Mr. Obama said.

"Well, I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., a member of the majority in that decision, broke with the justices' usual decorum to openly dissent. He shook his head no and mouthed the words "not true."

The majority opinion in the case, Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, specifically disavowed a verdict on the question of foreign companies' political spending.

Former Times Supreme Court reporter (now nytimes.com columnist) Linda Greenhouse also sided with Justice Alito against Obama in tackling another part of Obama's misstatement:

This time, Justice Alito shook his head as if to rebut the president's characterization of the Citizens United decision, and seemed to mouth the words "not true." Indeed, Mr. Obama's description of the holding of the case was imprecise. He said the court had "reversed a century of law."

The law that Congress enacted in the populist days of the early 20th century prohibited direct corporate contributions to political campaigns. That law was not at issue in the Citizens United case, and is still on the books. Rather, the court struck down a more complicated statute that barred corporations and unions from spending money directly from their treasuries - as opposed to their political action committees - on television advertising to urge a vote for or against a federal candidate in the period immediately before the election. It is true, though, that the majority wrote so broadly about corporate free speech rights as to call into question other limitations as well - although not necessarily the existing ban on direct contributions.

(After Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shouted "you lie" during Obama's September 2009 address to Congress, Hulse fulminated over Wilson's "breach of the protocol," ignoring his own reporting on Democrats shouting at President George W. Bush on Social Security reform during his 2005 State of the Union.)