Roberts Rules (Part I)
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.