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Chief Justice John Roberts, left, speaks during his conversation with former University of Minnesota Law School Dean Robert Stein on Tuesday at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis.
Chief Justice John Roberts, left, speaks during his conversation with former University of Minnesota Law School Dean Robert Stein on Tuesday at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis.

At U of M, John Roberts saves criticism for judicial opinions

Chief Justice John Roberts displayed his lighter side on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at the University of Minnesota Stein Lecture, starting out by saying that while he wanted to briefly address the tumultuous events of the previous two weeks, he “will not criticize the political branch because we do that often enough in our opinions.”

More seriously, he continued to emphasize the court’s independence, saying that it has erred when it yields to political pressure. The best way to do our job is in a collegial way, Roberts said, noting that the justices shake hands prior to oral arguments and conference. “I’m not talking about mere civility, although that helps,” he said. “We need to know at every step that we are in this together.”

Then he assured the crowd that the court would continue to act to the best of its abilities whether times are calm or contentious.

Roberts and Robert Stein, the founder of the Stein Lecture Series, former U of M law school dean and chief operating officer of the American Bar Association, then settled in for the traditional question and answer format of the lectures.

Stein first asked about the difference between the roles of the chief justice and associate justices. “The most important difference is that I get an $10,000 extra per year,” Roberts replied. He went on to explain that works out the opinion assignments so that justices have a mixture of opinions to write, “Including the cases that we call ‘the dogs.’” He said that it was a process he enjoyed.

“It’s like a riddle or a puzzle to get everything to fit together,” Roberts said.

Stein observed that the court has sat in recent years with only eight justices, and asked how that is different. It’s harder because the court is aware that a tie does nothing to move the case or clarify the law, Roberts replied. As for having a new justice join the court, Roberts said, the eight justices behave themselves better. “It’s like have a new in-law at Thanksgiving.”

Additionally, sometimes a justice has to explain his or her position on legal doctrine to a new justice and that causes the justice to re-examine it, Roberts said.

Stein noted that polls show that many members of the public don’t know who is on the Supreme Court and how it functions, and asked Roberts if that bothered him. The lack of knowledge of how the court functions and how it is different from other branches of government is unfortunate, Roberts replied. But the fact that people don’t know of individual justices doesn’t bother him, he said, pointing out that wearing black robes shows that the justice’s individual personalities are not the reason for a decision on the law. Sometimes people thank or praise him for a ruling, Roberts said, “and I just don’t have the heart to tell them I wrote a dissent.”

Stein asked Roberts if he was bothered by observers’ criticism of the court and how he dealt with it. “I try not to read it, frankly,” he said. “The good thing about life tenure is that it doesn’t bother me that much.” He added that he did read articles about the court that he thought would provide thoughtful analysis, including the Supreme Court press corps’.

The audience for his opinions is his three sisters, Roberts said. They are not lawyers, they are not in Washington, D.C., they like to keep up with civic affairs but are not preoccupied with them. “I would like somebody in that position to understand what their Supreme Court has done,” the chief justice said. “I think sometimes the lawyers are disappointed that I didn’t chase every rabbit down every hole. Certainly the law professors think that,” he added.

Succinct briefs are appreciated, Roberts continued. He said a justice repeatedly picks up a brief and its 50 pages long. “Then you get one that is 35 pages. The first thing you do is look at the cover and see who the lawyer is. Then you say, ‘I like her.’”

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