On January 26, 2010, President Obama while delivering his State of the Union address, for a moment took his eyes off the teleprompters and glared down at Chief Justice John Roberts. In a stern voice he condemned the Court for its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, stating, “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections.” Justice Samuel Alito was seen mouthing the words “not true” when Obama criticized the Supreme Court. Liberal politicians stood and cheered the president. The Supreme Court justices remained seated like potted plants. Alito has vowed never to attend another State of the Union speech.
While speaking at the University of Alabama on March 9, 2010, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.” Justice Roberts felt the full force of the bully pulpit as millions of his fellow Americans watched the spectacle at home on television. The leader of the Executive Branch of the Federal government was boldly intimidating the chief of the Judicial Branch. It worked. Twenty-nine months later, on June 28, 2012, writing in his Supreme Court office just across the street from the U.S. Capitol where president Obama delivered his State of the Union address, Chief Justice Roberts reversed his initial position and penned the majority opinion in the landmark 5-4 decision in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.
Four years later, on July 5, 2016, FBI director James Comey stood before television cameras and told an eager nation that he was recommending that Attorney General Loretta Lynch not prosecute Hillary Clinton despite evidence of potentially multiple crimes in her mishandling of classified emails. The FBI headquarters is only a block from the Department of Justice and only six blocks from the White House. Neither president Obama nor Attorney General Lynch wanted their party’s nominee for president investigated. Physical proximity makes maintaining independence difficult.
The Federal government has grown like a malignant cancer in Washington, D.C. There are three branches of government, 15 cabinet level Executive Departments, 257 agencies, and 467,000 Federal employees in Washington, D.C. and its suburbs. Some 1.7 million people in the Metro Washington area, or 52% of the labor market, work in Federal government-related jobs. Four of the five wealthiest counties in the USA surround Washington, D.C.
The size and concentration of power in Washington is unhealthy, especially when it involves the judiciary and law enforcement functions of the Federal government. The Supreme Court, FBI, DOJ, and CIA need to be independent of political pressures and act with complete integrity. A major step towards accomplishing this would be for them to move away from Washington.
The Supreme Court is the logical choice to start this movement. The Supreme Court heads one of the three branches of government, yet has only nine justices and a small staff. At $94.5 million, its annual budget is minuscule by Washington standards. Moreover, the Supreme Court only needs five people to decide to make this move — a majority of the soon to be nine justices. The Supreme Court could move to either Boston or Atlanta. Or, since most of the justices are senior citizens, perhaps they would vote to move to a sunny city like San Diego.
Such a move would be symbolic: Washington is being downsized and power is being distributed nationally. One of the three branches of the Federal government is moving out of town. The media would need to dedicate court reporters to the new city. They could still talk among themselves, but would avoid daily contact with their colleagues covering political news. The justices would no longer frequent social circles with members of the other two branches of government and would be less likely to succumb to their pressure. Justices are human and can be influenced by politics rather than strictly ruling on the law.
The FBI and Department of Justice should then follow the Supreme Court’s lead and move. The FBI already has 56 field offices for its 35,000 employees. Its largest facility is the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. That might be a good choice for its new home. The DOJ can move to Chicago, Dallas, or Los Angeles. There is no room for politics in matters of law enforcement. Distancing themselves from the political fishbowl that is Washington will give these law enforcement departments more autonomy, independence, and most importantly help restore integrity.
There is precedent for Federal government agencies being located away from Washington. For example, NASA is in Houston and the Centers for Disease Control is in Atlanta. Both function well outside of Washington. Another advantage of being outside of Washington is that these agencies are more likely to have their budgets restrained or cut as they don’t have a presence and therefore as much influence as the denizens of inside the Beltway. NASA’s fiscal 2017 budget of $18.8 billion, when adjusted for inflation, has been cut in half from what it was in fiscal year 1965. Moving more of the Federal government away from Washington may do wonders for controlling spending.
How about the FDA moving to San Jose, the EPA to Dallas, and the Federal Reserve back to New York City? Spreading the head offices of departments and agencies of the Federal government around the 50 states would be an effective way to help drain the swamp.
Justice Samuel Alito has vowed never to attend another State of the Union speech. Perhaps in the not too distant future he will be watching president Donald J. Trump delivering his State of the Union address on television from his Supreme Court office in sunny San Diego.