Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told a federal appeals court Thursday that President Obama respects the Supreme Court's power to rule on the constitutionality of the nation's laws, a statement that a week ago would have seemed obvious but Thursday appeared aimed at ending days of White House stumbling over the tricky politics of the Supreme Court.
In a three-page letter, Holder defended Obama's recent comments about the court and its impending decision on the health care law as "fully consistent" with established judicial precedent.
Obama's remarks had roiled Judge Jerry E. Smith of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Smith made the unusual demand for an explanation from government lawyers in his courtroom after saying that the president appeared to be questioning whether courts have the power to invalidate acts of Congress.
The back and forth underscored the difficulty the president -- along with his party -- has had when it comes to using the court and its decisions for political advantage.
Both the White House and the Obama campaign have been mum on how the president would handle the political fallout of a ruling against his health care law. But Obama seemed to be primed for confrontation in his first remarks on the matter this week in which he declared such a move would be "unprecedented" and noted that the justices were "unelected."
The statement prompted Smith's demand and was widely mocked by critics and some legal experts as a misunderstanding of well-established judicial precedent. Since 1803, the court has had the power to strike down laws passed by Congress.
Obama's comments were all the more surprising considering that he is a former constitutional law professor. Even Obama's law professor at Harvard, Laurence Tribe, told the Wall Street Journal that the president misspoke.
Also Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had his say.
"The president did something that as far as I know is completely unprecedented. He not only tried to publicly pressure the court into deciding a pending case in the way he wants it decided; he also questioned its very authority under the Constitution," McConnell said.
Obama on Tuesday sought to clarify the remarks. It had been decades since the court had struck down an economic law based on the commerce clause, the issue at play in the health care case, he said.
Holder further affirmed the position Thursday, writing that "the power of the courts to review the constitutionality of legislation is beyond dispute." White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president's comments were merely an "unremarkable observation" about court precedent.
Obama has shown he is willing to confront the court. The president made news and raised the ire of some members of the court, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., when he condemned the Citizens United ruling, which allowed huge infusions of cash into political campaigns, in his 2010 State of the Union speech with some of the justices in attendance.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.