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NBC Accuses Federal Judge of Bringing Politics Into Courtroom By Questioning Obama

On Wednesday's NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams accused a federal judge of bringing politics into the judicial process simply by ordering the Justice Department to explain controversial comments President Obama made against the Supreme Court: "Politics are ideally supposed to stay out of the nation's courtrooms, but that's not what happened this week in a federal courtroom in Texas." 

In report that followed, correspondent Pete Williams proclaimed: "The political controversy spilled into a Texas federal court, where the rules are designed to filter out politics, interrupting arguments about a challenge to part of the Obama health care law." Williams noted how Judge Jerry Smith "put a Justice Department lawyer on the spot" to explain the President's attack on the court system and made sure to point out that Smith was "a Reagan appointee."

Williams explained: "On Monday, asked about predictions that the Supreme Court might strike down the health care law, the President used terms normally invoked by conservatives to attack decisions they don't like." After playing a clip of the comments in question, Williams did mention: "The President did dial back his remarks yesterday, saying simply the courts have shown restraint in overruling acts of Congress..."

With the President's comments stirring controversy, Williams tried to bring the story to an end: "...some say everyone should now cool it." A sound bite followed of American University Washington Law School professor Stephen Wermiel, who concluded: "President Obama really stepped into a controversy by criticizing the judicial activism of the court, but I can't imagine the circumstances under which a federal judge would then order the Justice Department to explain the President's views."

Professor Wermiel is also the author of "Justice Brennan, Liberal Champion."

NBC largely ignored the fact that President Obama injected politics into the Supreme Court proceedings with his Monday comments. The only coverage of the misstep on the network prior to Wednesday night was a single news brief by Savannah Guthrie on Tuesday's Today: "President Obama predicted Monday that the Supreme Court will uphold his health care reform law when that ruling is announced in June. The President seemed to challenge the justices directly when he warned that overturning the law would hurt millions of Americans and amount to an overreach by the court."

Here is a full transcript of the April 4 Nightly News report:

7:09AM ET

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Politics are ideally supposed to stay out of the nation's courtrooms, but that's not what happened this week in a federal courtroom in Texas. One of the judges took issue with some of what President Obama said this week at the White House about the big health care case that's now in the hands of the Supreme Court. Our justice correspondent Pete Williams has more.

PETE WILLIAMS: The political controversy spilled into a Texas federal court, where the rules are designed to filter out politics, interrupting arguments about a challenge to part of the Obama health care law. Jerry smith, an appeals court judge, put a Justice Department lawyer on the spot yesterday about a comment earlier this week from President Obama.

JERRY SMITH: I'm referring to statements by the President in the past few days to the effect, and I'm sure you've heard about them, that it is somehow inappropriate for what he termed unelected judges to strike acts of Congress.

WILLIAMS: On Monday, asked about predictions that the Supreme Court might strike down the health care law, the President used terms normally invoked by conservatives to attack decisions they don't like.

BARACK OBAMA: For years, what we've heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint. That an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, it's a good example.

WILLIAMS: He said it would be unprecedented to overturn a law passed by a majority in Congress. Judge Smith, a Reagan appointee, demanded a letter from the government by noon tomorrow stating its position on the power of the courts to strike down laws. Republicans in Congress pounced too. The Senate's Minority Leader Mitch McConnell circulated a list of 169 times the Supreme Court has struck down federal laws in part or completely. The President did dial back his remarks yesterday, saying simply the courts have shown restraint in overruling acts of Congress, but some say everyone should now cool it.

STEPHEN WERMIEL [PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY WASHINGTON COLLEGE OF LAW]: President Obama really stepped into a controversy by criticizing the judicial activism of the court, but I can't imagine the circumstances under which a federal judge would then order the Justice Department to explain the President's views.

WILLIAMS: Unknown in all of this is whether the justices were listening. Most legal experts say even if they were, it won't make a difference in what they do. Pete Williams, NBC News, at the Supreme Court.

-- Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow Kyle Drennen on Twitter.