The five sitting Supreme Court justices attending the State of the Union are being joined by two of their predecessors, the first time a retired justice has attended the president’s address in 26 years.
Retired Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy, two regular attendees during their years on the bench, have again returned to the House chamber for the annual speech.
They are joined by their successors — Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Brett Kavanaugh — as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Elena Kagan and Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
The last time a former justice attended was former President Clinton’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 1997, when Byron White joined.
While some sitting justices haven’t attended in more than a decade, Breyer and Kennedy were quite the regulars while on the bench.
They were the only two justices to attend former President George W. Bush’s address in 2002, when seven of their colleagues sat out.
Then-President George W. Bush waves before the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol January 23, 2007 in Washington, DC. In addition to the war in Iraq, Bush was expected to touch on a wide range of topics including energy, education, immigration and health care. (Photo by Larry Downing/POOL)
Breyer became the only justice to attend for each of the next three years, and he made appearances at every State of the Union afterward until 2019. Tuesday marks the first following the justice’s retirement.
“I think it’s very, very, very important — very important — for us to show up at that State of the Union because people today, as you know, are more and more visual,” Breyer told Fox News in 2015.
“I’d like them to read, but they are visual,” Breyer continued. “And what they see in front of them in that State of the Union is the federal government, every part — the president, the Congress, the Cabinet, the military, and I would like them to see the judges too because federal judges are also part of that government, and I want to be there.”
Some of the justices who opted not to attend on Tuesday came with little surprise.
Justice Samuel Alito stopped attending after 2010, when he gained attention for mouthing the words “not true” as then-President Obama denounced the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC ruling on campaign finance.
Justice Clarence Thomas last attended a State of the Union in 2006 and will again miss the address.
During a 2010 speech at a law school, Thomas said he stopped going because it’s “very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there” since it has become “so partisan,” according to The New York Times.
“There’s a lot that you don’t hear on TV,” Thomas said. “The catcalls, the whooping and hollering and under-the-breath comments.”
Tuesday will mark the second State of the Union that Justice Neil Gorsuch has missed. He has attended three since joining the court during the Trump administration in 2017.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is also not in the House chamber, hasn’t gone since 2016.