Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, September 14, 2009

Chief Justice Roberts holds court at Law School gathering

By James Iseler

The U.S. Supreme Court is more likely to reach consensus rulings that provide better guidance to lower courts if it focuses on narrowly defined matters of law rather than broader societal issues, Chief Justice John Roberts said during an appearance at U-M on Friday.

Chief Justice John Roberts addresses the Law School community Friday before answering questions as part of the school's 105th anniversary festivities. (Photo by Scott Soderberg, Photo Services)

Speaking during an informal question-and-answer session as part of the Law School’s 150th anniversary, Roberts said maintaining a narrow focus in legal disputes could result in fewer 5-4 decisions, which also tend to be divisive among the public.

“I think it’s better to hit a few singles rather than always swing for the fences, because when you swing for the fences you’re more likely to strike out,” he told the crowd of Law School students, faculty, staff and alumni at Hill Auditorium.

While acknowledging some of his colleagues on the high court disagree with his objective, Roberts said, “I think we can do a better job as judges if we can come to some sort of agreement.”

“If there’s a basis for a decision on which you do agree which is narrow, and it addresses the constitutional issue on which you disagree, I think you ought to base the decision on that,” he said.

A desire for more consensus was just one of the topics that Roberts, the country’s 17th chief justice, discussed during the event, which was moderated by Law School Dean Evan Caminker and featured a variety of questions from the audience.

His comments ranged from the serious to the humorous, such as when he addressed the matter of for whom he would root at the next day’s football game between Michigan and Notre Dame. Roberts, who grew up near South Bend, Ind., diplomatically avoided the issue. “I advocate the principle of judicial restraint. I see no need to answer that question, and I won’t,” he joked.

Roberts took his seat on the court nearly four years ago after his nomination by President George W. Bush. During Friday's event, which lasted nearly an hour and a half, the chief justice touched on various topics, including:

• Whether listening to oral arguments changes his view on cases.

Sometimes it does, Roberts said, but it’s important to keep a skeptical attitude during all stages of the decision-making process — legal briefs, arguments, and discussions with clerks. Often, he doesn’t make up his mind until all aspects of the process have concluded, he said.

• His reason for not immediately releasing audio recordings of court hearings.

Cameras are barred from the courtroom and reporters may not use audio recorders. The court has released audio recordings immediately in a few high-profile cases, but usually withholds them until the end of the term.

Routinely releasing same-day audio could change the nature of the discussion between lawyers and justices, promoting a risk that participants would “behave in sound bites,” Roberts said. “At the end of the day it’s not our job to educate. It’s our job decide cases of law under the Constitution.”

• Whether this is a good time to be chief justice or if he’d like to have held the position during a different time in the nation’s history.

Each era has its own challenges, Roberts said, acknowledging that the job now “is much more confined than it used to be.”

John Marshall perhaps was the most influential chief justice because of his formative role in developing the court as an independent branch of government. The opportunities to wield that kind of influence don’t exist today, Roberts said. “I wouldn’t want harder cases than we’ve got. They’re hard enough.”

• Whether he is more conservative than his predecessor, the late William Rehnquist, for whom Roberts clerked before Rehnquist was elevated from associate justice to chief justice.

“I just don’t think it’s terribly useful to speak in those terms, to be honest with you,” he said. Although defining particular justices as conservative or liberal can be “valuable shorthand” for the media when it comes to explaining the justice’s positions, it masks the legal arguments in dispute and the changing nature of cases that the court considers over time.

• Whether a high court consisting of justices trained at elite institutions can understand the impact of its decisions on Americans from other segments of society.

Roberts acknowledged that many of the justices have similar backgrounds, but pointed out it’s the job of lawyers who come before the court to educate justices on how the legal issues in dispute affect their clients.

The two-time Harvard graduate prefaced that comment by explaining that “not all justices went to elite institutions.”

“Some,’ he joked, “went to Yale.”

Law School Dean Evan Caminker, right, moderated the question-and-answer session with Chief Justice John Roberts. (Photo by Scott Soderberg, Photo Services)