- 17 октября 2018, 02:56
- POLITICO. Top Stories
Chief Justice John Roberts is vowing to keep the Supreme Court out of the political fray despite the intense and divisive fight over the nomination of the court’s newest member, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
At the outset of an appearance at the University of Minnesota on Tuesday, Roberts said he wanted to make some comments prompted by what he euphemistically called “the contentious events in Washington in recent weeks.”
“I will not criticize the political branches. We do that often enough in our opinions,” the chief justice said. “What I would like to do is emphasize how the judicial branch is and must be very different.”
Roberts professed “great respect” for public officials, presumably including the senators who conducted the two rounds of hearings for Kavanaugh.
“After all, they speak for the people,” the chief justice said. “We do not speak for the people, but we speak for the Constitution. Our role is very clear.”
In the wake of Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the Senate’s controversial handling of sexual assault allegations against him, polls have shown an increased number of Americans convinced that the court is becoming more political. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 43 percent of Americans think the court’s rulings will be more politically motivated with Kavanaugh on the bench, compared with 10 percent who said they will be less political.
Roberts stressed that many of the Supreme Court’s most significant decisions had been unpopular and at odds with what elected officials of the time probably would have wanted.
“The story of the Supreme Court would be very different without that kind of independence. Without independence, there is no Brown v. Board of Education,” the chief justice said, referring to the landmark, unanimous high-court decision that barred segregated public schools. He also pointed to a 1943 ruling upholding the right of public school students not to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance, and a 1952 decision reining in presidential power in a case over President Harry Truman’s attempt to seize steel mills.
Roberts did offer a rhetorical tip of the hat to Kavanaugh, quoting his remarks at his White House swearing-in, where he noted that the justices don’t arrange themselves on opposite sides of an aisle by political party.
“We do not serve one party or one interest, but we serve one nation,” the chief justice said, still citing his newest colleague. “I want to assure all of you that we will continue to do that to the best of our abilities, whether times are calm or contentious.”
Roberts said having a new member on the court prompted many of the justices to sharpen up arguments that may have gotten a bit shopworn with colleagues they’ve known for years.
“It is like having a new in-law at Thanksgiving dinner. Uncle Fred will put on a clean shirt,” the chief justice joked.
Despite some politically polarized and polarizing decisions from the high court in recent years, Roberts described collegiality between the justices as “very, very good.”
“We do think we are in this important enterprise together,” he said. “In many ways, it’s unlike any other job … that does cause a real bond to develop between you.”
Roberts hinted that the justices do sometimes discuss issues like politics with one another behind closed doors, largely because it’s not wise for them to do so with others. He said he tries to direct the court to a degree and to achieve his stated goal to seek consensus where feasible, but that this doesn’t always work.
“I’d have to say it’s a project in progress, still … I still think it’s an important objective,” he said.
Roberts also said he has to be careful not to be too bossy with his eight colleagues, who all essentially have the same vote as well as lifetime appointments to the court.
“As a chief justice, you hold the reins of power, but if you tug on them too tightly, you’ll learn they’re not attached to anything,” he quipped.
Under questioning from Robert Stein, a University of Minnesota law professor, the chief justice affirmed his long-standing opposition to allowing TV cameras into the high court. However, he did concede that video coverage of the court’s arguments would have some benefits.
“I think it’d be very helpful in getting more people familiar with how the court operates, but that’s not our job — to educate people,” Roberts said. “Our job is to carry out our job under the Constitution to interpret the Constitution and laws according to the rule of law, and I think that having cameras in the courtroom would impede that process.
“We think the process works pretty well. I think that if there were cameras, that lawyers would act differently. I think, frankly, some of my colleagues would act differently. … I don’t think that there are a lot of public institutions, frankly, that have been improved in how they do business by cameras.”