(TIME) – The wording in the Constitution is simple and straightforward: the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” There’s nothing in there about the Supreme Court justices and, accordingly, there’s nothing simple and straightforward about their attendance.
This year, six justices were in attendance, while three of the most conservative members of the court, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, were noticeably absent. In the modern era, custom has held that the justices would show up in their official robes and sit impassively. But in recent years, they’ve become more resistant to the tradition.
Justice Antonin Scalia’s absence is no surprise. It was the 19th State of the Union in a row that he’s skipped since he considers the speech a “childish spectacle.”
Justice Clarence Thomas’s empty seat was also unsurprising. In 2012, Thomas said he doesn’t attend the annual event because “it has become so partisan and it’s very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there.”