Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Roberts Rules (Part I)

By Shawn Healy
Last Wednesday, I had the distinct privilege of visiting the U.S. Supreme Court and sitting in on a talk delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts. I am a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin, and each summer fellows from across the country gather in Washington for a summer institute staged at Georgetown University. As part of the amazing menu of educational offerings, the fellowship arranges a visit with a sitting Supreme Court Justice.

During my summer in DC, Associate Justice Steven Breyer addressed our group. True to my budding qualifications as a First Amendment scholar, I asked Justice Breyer about their recent decision concerning school vouchers. I contrasted separate appeals from Milwaukee and Cleveland (the Court accepted the latter case), and wondered why they balked in the first instance and acted in the second. Hoping that Breyer would point to the political nature of the Court’s maneuvering, he instead elaborated on how the justices are careful to search for the ideal case in order to establish precedents for lower courts to implement.

In the interim, I saw Breyer speak once more at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg at a women’s event in Chicago, and Justice Clarence Thomas as he passed through town on a book tour. Across the board, I was impressed with their intelligence, ability to articulate their vision of constitutional interpretation, and the extent to which they take their responsibility of remaining above politics seriously. Chief Justice Roberts only added to my admiration of the eight men and one woman who preside over the highest court in the land.

Roberts spoke to our group of fifty for nearly an hour in one of two conference rooms adjacent to the courtroom. An undergraduate history major, the Chief showed an impressive grasp of the sixteen men who preceded him. The conference room contained portraits of his eight most immediate predecessors, but he began by paying homage to Chief Justice John Marshall.

Calling Marbury v. Madison the most important decision in the Court’s history, for it established the power of judicial review; Roberts credited Marshall for cementing the credibility of the national government. He served for three decades and was the first to take the job of Chief Justice seriously. Marshall built consensus on the Court and delivered unified opinions in his name, establishing the Court as an independent branch of government.

He also referenced a couple of 20th Century Chief Justices: William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes. Taft is credited with using his political skills to lobby for funding to build the current building, a true temple of law. Hughes presided during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose court-packing scheme rallied the country against the plan, recognizing its threat to judicial independence.

Turning to his present business, Roberts announced that today will be the final session of the current term. As of last Wednesday, seven decisions were yet to be announced, though two followed on Thursday. After 20 years of service, Justice David Souter’s retirement will become official, and the Court as a whole will “rise for the summer.” The justices do not enjoy the summer off, however. They will spend at least part of the time sorting through roughly 9,000 petitions.

The formal portion of Roberts’ remarks focused on the most difficult part of his job. While he acknowledges that many of the cases the Court considers are literally matters of life and death, it is the administrative function of his job that he finds most taxing. He acknowledges that he was not selected for this purpose. He entered a Court that was together longer than any group in history, but found the eight associate justice, all of whom he was junior to, “very welcoming.” They are united by a “spirit of collegiality,” and this made Roberts’ transition to the head of this prestigious body “easier than expected.” While they certainly diverge on ideological grounds, the nine members of the Supreme Court are united by reading the same legal briefs and listening to hours of oral arguments.

Roberts proceeded to entertain questions next, and I will summarize these in a follow-up post on Wednesday.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

Powered by Blogger