By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - It has been three years since U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito seized the limelight during one of President Barack Obama's State of the Union speeches.
He has not been back since.
The annual address on Tuesday marked the third year in a row that Alito has not attended the event. He was one of three justices - the others being fellow conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - who were no-shows.
Alito's decision not to attend was no surprise, in particular because his mother, Rose, died last week at the age of 98. Her funeral took place in Hamilton, New Jersey, on Monday, according to an online obituary in a local newspaper.
Scalia spent the evening participating in another public event. He talked about his life as a justice before a paying audience at George Washington University in Washington.
Both of Obama's appointees to the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan, attended on Tuesday, as did Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer.
Alito generated headlines during the 2010 speech when the president openly criticized the court's decision to strike down campaign finance restrictions in a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
"Not true," Alito was seen mouthing as Obama described the impact of the ruling.
Alito's decision not to attend, in the aftermath of the media scrutiny his remarks prompted, put the spotlight in general on Supreme Court justice attendance at the showpiece event.
It is up to each individual justice whether to attend and some clearly feel more of an obligation to go than others.
Roberts has attended every State of the Union address since he was appointed in September 2005. Breyer has also had a high, though not perfect, attendance rate since taking up his role in 1994, according to research conducted by Michael Giles, an Emory University professor, and Todd Peppers, a professor at Roanoke College.
By contrast, Thomas, Scalia and Ginsburg have all regularly opted out of attending, Giles and Peppers say.
As for Alito's reasons for not attending, he said at an October 2010 event in New York that the State of the Union speeches have "become very political events and it's very awkward for the justices," who are not expected to show any response to any politically charged rhetoric. (Editing by Howard Goller and Mohammad Zargham)