Roberts to Rice: Court not as divisive as many think

Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr., right, talks with the audience at Tudor Fieldhouse during a question-and-answer session with Rice President David Leebron, left. Chief Justice Roberts' appearance was the final event in the university's Centennial Celebration and the last of five Centennial Lecture Series events. More than 4,750 students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the Houston community attended “A Conversation with the Chief Justice.” Click on the photo above to watch the entire lecture. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Chief justice delivers personal perspective in final centennial lecture

A question-and-answer session with Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. hosted by Rice President David Leebron Oct. 17 gave listeners an intimate look into the thought process of the man who sits at the apex of the nation’s judicial system.

More than 4,750 members of the Rice and Houston communities turned out at Tudor Fieldhouse for “A Conversation with the Chief Justice,” which was the last of five presentations in the Centennial Lecture Series. The Chief Justice began with some brief opening remarks taking note of Rice’s history and the importance of the centennial. (Click here to watch the entire lecture.)

Both Leebron and Chief Justice Roberts noted in their opening comments that they could not talk about cases, whether pending, in the future or the past. That left the path open for a more philosophical discussion with the affable Roberts of the court’s place in modern-day America, and how the Constitution retains the intellectual heft to rule a world of jet planes and cellphones from a time when horse-drawn wagons were the height of convenience.

As chief justice, Roberts has full oversight over a system he feels is often misunderstood by citizens.

“People tend to think we’re just part of the government like everybody else,” he said. “We have pretty low approval ratings,” he said, noting how those ratings shift with every big decision.

“I think we’re low because people’s view of government is low,” Roberts said. “And I think people need to understand — and they don’t – that we’re different. … The other branches are at each other’s throats in a partisan way; you know, don’t assume that’s the way we are, because we’re not.”

Roberts was most surprised upon joining the Supreme Court as chief justice in 2005 at the high level of discourse among the justices. “In the conference room at the Supreme Court, which is right off of my office behind the courtroom, there’s one big table,” he said. “We have on one side all the published opinions of the Supreme Court, on the other side all of the statutes that Congress has passed.

“Although I had been litigating before the Supreme Court for 20 years, I had no idea what went on there. And you can imagine how I felt going in there for the first time. They had been together for 11 years with no new justices. I was the youngest in the room, certainly with the least judicial experience; I had been on the court (of appeals) only two years. And I was coming in as the chief justice. I really only had a vague idea what I was supposed to do in leading and initiating the discussion. But right away I was impressed at the level people were talking about the issues, talking about the cases.”

Roberts said that when there is disagreement about a case, a justice will stand up, pull out a law book and research the question. “It’s not any type of intellectual bullying; it’s a very serious discussion about often very serious issues as to which people have very strong views,” he said. “But as someone said, there’s never been a voice raised in anger in that room. And that is true to this day.”

Categorizing the justices as liberal or conservative is not “a very accurate way to view the court,” he said. “We look at these cases and resolve them according to our best view of the law, not in terms of a particular liberal or conservative political agenda.”

The justices, he said, can more fairly be characterized by how they view the rule of law. “Some of my colleagues prefer to adhere fairly strictly to the text of a statute,” Roberts explained. “Others … like to look more expansively to what we call the legislative history, the background of the statute or its purpose, and it makes sense to refer to them in those terms. Some of us think it’s very important what the framers of the Constitution were thinking about at the founding, when they drafted it. Others of us on the court take a more flexible view and think the interpretation of the Constitution should be informed by evolutionary developments.

“Those sort of things make sense. It’s just easier for reporters to say, ‘That justice is liberal and that justice is conservative’ and I don’t think it’s a very helpful way to look at what we do.”

Leebron noted the increase in the number of 5-4 decisions since the 1960s, and asked Roberts if he would like to see more cohesion among the justices. Roberts responded that two-thirds of the court’s decisions are either unanimous, 8-1 or 7-2 decisions. “Even the 5-4 ones are not always as controversial as you might think,” he said.

“I think the broader agreement you get on a court, the better,” Roberts continued. “The way you get to a broader agreement is to have a narrower decision. … I happen to think that’s a good thing, that our decisions reach as narrowly as possible, rather than the justices trying to write broadly to cover all sorts of situations they might not have anticipated or thought about carefully enough.”

Leebron asked Roberts how the Senate confirmation process for justices could be improved.

Rather than ask judicial nominees questions about cases or issues that they cannot answer, Roberts said, “I think it would be more useful to ask a question the nominee can answer, along the lines of, say, ‘What is your view of the role of the Supreme Court … under the Constitution?’”

Even asking a nominee about an inspirational book would be informative, he said. “You learn something if the person sits there with a blank expression. You learn something else if they say, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ’12 Angry Men.’ You can learn about judicial philosophy and perspectives on the law by asking questions like that.”

Leebron seized the moment to ask Roberts if a particular book had influenced his career choice. Roberts said “12 Angry Men” made him think a lot about justice, and noted he recently watched the movie with his children to share the experience with them.

Roberts acknowledged in response to an audience member’s question that new technology is raising challenging issues, but that has always been the case. “The important thing to recognize is, when the airplane came along, the framers had no idea there would be air travel. … Does that mean the Commerce Clause doesn’t apply to air travel?” he asked. “Of course not. The principles the framers meant to establish in the Commerce Clause certainly can readily be applied to evolving commerce.

“The court doesn’t always get this right; for example, when wire taps first came up. When the framers wrote the Fourth Amendment about searches and seizures, they didn’t envision wire taps. Therefore, the first decision was, ‘Well, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply to this.’ But it became pretty clear pretty quickly that allowing people to intercept private conversations constituted the same sort of search and seizure of material that the framers want to protect.

“So you try to find, at least I do… what the fundamental principle underlying the constitutional protection is, and apply it to new issues and new technology. … I think that is going to be the real challenge for the next 50 years: How we do adopt old, established rules to new technology.”

Leebron asked a more personal question about what brought Roberts to his “once in a generation, at best” position as chief justice. (The Rice president jokingly suggested that he played a role in that rise when he, as president of the Harvard Law Review in 1978 named Roberts managing editor of the prestigious journal.)

“It’s probably the same element that led to you becoming president of Rice,” Roberts said. “It’s no false modesty: Luck, to be perfectly honest, is the biggest single element in getting to be chief justice. Not just for me, for every chief justice.”

“The great chief justice, John Marshall, had a great bit of luck,” he said. “(President) John Adams wanted to appoint John Jay, who had been the first chief justice, but had gone off to be governor of New York.” Jay refused by letter, Roberts said. “Adams’ secretary of state brings that letter in to him, Adams looks at the letter. He’s crestfallen. Looks up at his secretary of state, John Marshall, and says, ‘I guess I have to nominate you.’ I’m not saying he wouldn’t have been nominated if somebody else had brought in the letter, but it’s certainly a possibility.”

Roberts noted he was originally nominated to become a member of the Supreme Court but not chief justice. “Very sadly … my predecessor and mentor, Chief Justice (William) Rehnquist passed away during the pendency of that, and they switched my nomination at the end.

“All of us on the court appreciate the fact that we really have just been struck by lightning. … It’s better to be lucky than good.”

Roberts said he does not have an overriding judicial philosophy. “I put a lot of weight on what the founding fathers were trying to accomplish. They had a reason for objecting to unreasonable search and seizures. And you can look at that and that informs your interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. I approach each case trying to draw on the precedent and other sources as I can.”

Leebron asked how Roberts feels his leadership will be remembered.

“I don’t think it’s terribly fruitful to try to think about that,” he said. “But I would like people to think that I was a good judge. Nothing more or less than that.”

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.