Obama court comments create stir

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks at The Associated Press luncheon during the ASNE Convention, Tuesday, April 3, 2012, in Washington.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

(CBS News) President Barack Obama has been running against Congress for a while, but as the Supreme Court weighs the constitutionality of his health care overhaul, recent comments appear to have put him at odds with the courts as well.

"I don't anticipate the court striking this down. I think they take their responsibilities very seriously," Mr. Obama said Tuesday, referring to the Supreme Court's upcoming decision - expected by the end of June - on his signature legislative achievement.

It was the second straight day the president gave his take on what the high court should do. On Monday, he seemed to suggest the court didn't even have the power to strike down the law.

"Ultimately, I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress," Mr. Obama said.

Of course it wouldn't be unprecedented - the justices often overturn laws passed by Congress if the court believes the law to be unconstitutional.

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Republicans pounced on the comments.

"What is this 'The court must understand?' That is a threat," conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said.

But it went beyond talk radio. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell released a statement saying the president lacked a "fundamental respect" for the separation of powers.

And Tuesday afternoon, the judges struck back. A federal appeals court in Houston issued an order to the Justice Department to explain whether the president really meant the court had no power to strike down the law.

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"I'm referring to statements by the president in the past few days to the effect that it is somehow inappropriate for what he termed 'unelected' judges to strike acts of Congress," Judge Jerry Smith, who sits on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Tuesday. (Audio available here.)

The stakes are high: If the court strikes down the healthcare law, which now appears to be a real possibility, it could be bad for the president's reelection efforts. And so the administration may be trying some spin.

"They may be trying to influence the court's decision. That's a possibility. They may be trying to shape public opinion about what a court decision might be. And it may just be that President Obama as a former teacher of constitutional law can't help but weigh in on what he thinks the court should do," Orin Kerr, of George Washington University Law School, said.

The president sought to clarify his comments Tuesday, saying that of course the court has the power overturn laws, but should exercise that power wisely.

"The point I was making is that the Supreme Court is the final say on our Constitution and our laws, and all of us have to respect it, but it's precisely because of that extraordinary power that the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress. And so the burden is on those who would overturn a law like this," Mr. Obama said.

"Now, as I said, I expect the Supreme Court actually to recognize that and to abide by well-established precedence out there. I have enormous confidence that in looking at this law, not only is it constitutional, but that the Court is going to exercise its jurisprudence carefully because of the profound power that our Supreme Court has."

Watch Jan Crawford's report in the video player above.

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News' chief legal correspondent and based in Washington, D.C.