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Chief Justice Pledges Supreme Court Won't be a Partisan Institution

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ

Speaking in Minneapolis Tuesday night, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. made glancing—but positive—comments about the Supreme Court’s new justice Brett Kavanaugh, telling his audience that the court’s oral arguments were more orderly during Kavanaugh’s first week on the bench last week.

When a new justice arrives, Roberts mused, “the eight who were there before behave themselves better. It’s really like having a new in-law at Thanksgiving dinner. You know, Uncle Fred will put on a clean shirt.”

Roberts went on to say that people told him that last week’s six oral arguments, with Kavanaugh on the bench, “were very well conducted,” with fewer justices interrupting each other.

The chief justice’s relatively rare public appearance took place at the University of Minnesota Law School, where he was interviewed by professor Robert Stein, formerly the longtime executive director of the American Bar Association.

Pledging that the court will not be a partisan institution even in contentious times, Roberts quoted from Kavanaugh’s comments during his confirmation hearing last month. “As our newest colleague put it,” Roberts said, “’we do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation.’ And I want to assure all of you that we will continue to do that.”

Roberts offered comments on a range of other subjects:

➤➤ Justice Anthony Kennedy was an “extraordinarily consequential” justice. Roberts said Kennedy showed him a list of readings that “he thought were essential for his grandchildren to read” to better understand liberty. The list ranged from “ancient Greek texts to Legally Blonde.” When the audience laughed Roberts exclaimed, “Believe me, it works. It really works.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy during a House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

➤➤ Roberts said he is among the justices who think the Supreme Court should decide more cases than the 75 or fewer that they’ve ruled on in recent years. “We certainly have the capacity to do it,” he said, “but the cases aren’t there” in terms of circuit splits. “Technology may have something to do with it,” Roberts added. “With the push of a button, lawyers know every case out there, so maybe the lower courts are finding ways to reconcile their differences without needing us.”

➤➤ When he is writing opinions, Roberts said, “I’m writing for my three sisters. They are not lawyers, they’re intelligent laypeople, they’re not in Washington.” In that way, he said, he tries to make his opinions accessible, though he acknowledged, “this is an area where I don’t succeed all the time.”

➤➤ Asked to name a decision he wrote that went against his own personal views, Roberts cited Snyder v. Phelps, the 2011 case giving First Amendment protection to virulent demonstrators who protested at military funerals. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key, as far as I’m concerned,” Roberts said. “But that’s not as far as the First Amendment was concerned, and my job was to apply the First Amendment.”


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