Chief Justice Roberts Shares His Insights at 2018 Stein Lecture

John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, took the unusual step of addressing his audience directly at the beginning of a sold-out appearance Tuesday at the 2018 Stein Lecture, sponsored by the Law School.

“I will not criticize the political branches,” Roberts said. “We do that often enough in our opinions.”

In his brief introductory remarks, Roberts reminded listeners of the court’s purpose. “We speak for the Constitution,” he said. “Our role is very clear. We are to interpret the Constitution in laws of the United States and ensure the political branches act within them.”

Roberts cited three landmark cases, which he said showed the court’s leadership: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952). The decisions addressed school desegregation, upholding the rights of students who refuse to salute the American flag, and preventing the president from seizing a company during wartime, respectively.

“The job obviously requires independence from the political branches,” he said.

A Perspective on Process

Roberts, who is a graduate of Harvard Law School and was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, spoke frequently about the court’s workings during an interview with Professor Robert Stein ’61.

During deliberations, Roberts insists justices not speak a second time until everyone has spoken once. When he selects colleagues to write majority opinions, Roberts is careful to assign a “mix of easy and hard opinions, unanimous opinions and closely divided opinions” and varied subject matter, he said.

Asked by Stein whether justices lobby to get assigned to write on particular cases, Roberts replied, “They don’t, and it’s something I appreciate very much.”

When a new justice joins the bench, those already on the high court often articulate legal opinions in new ways, Roberts said. And then there are the intangibles of a new person joining a group. “The eight that were there before behave themselves better,” he added. “It’s like when a new in-law [attends] Thanksgiving dinner. Uncle Fred will put on a clean shirt.”

To encourage collegiality, Roberts asks justices not to talk shop during lunch. So those discussions often center on lighter topics, such as Justice Samuel Alito’s love of baseball or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s analysis of the newest performance of La Traviata.

Stein also asked about the court’s workload, which, at about 75 cases per year, is sometimes criticized as low. When Roberts clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 1980, the court heard twice as many cases. While 150 cases per term is too many, Roberts said, the current caseload could be larger.

“We certainly have the capacity to do it,” Roberts said. “We can do more, but the cases aren’t there.” That’s due to fewer lower courts declaring laws unconstitutional, which is the bulk of the Supreme Court’s work, he added.

On Briefer Briefs

Since joining the court, Roberts has learned to love short legal briefs. While working as an attorney arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, he was often advised to be succinct. Now he knows why. Nearly every brief he reads is 50 pages, the maximum length allowed. But when the chief justice picks up a 35-page brief, he said, his reaction is “Whoa—I like [this lawyer]. She must have a lot of confidence in her arguments because she gets them in in 35 pages. It’s invariably not only shorter [but] better written.”

When writing his own legal opinions, Roberts thinks of his audience as his three sisters, whom he describes as intelligent lay people who follow public affairs but are not attorneys. “I would like somebody in that position to be able to understand what their Supreme Court has done,” he said. “I like to think the opinions are accessible.”

The Stein Lecture series, created and endowed by Professor Stein, features talks by prominent judges, lawyers, and government officials on a topic of national or international interest. Past speakers have included Vice President Walter F. Mondale ’56 and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and the late Antonin Scalia.

By Todd Melby, a freelance writer and radio producer based in Minneapolis