Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. was in an expansive mood in Indianapolis last night as he answered audience questions after giving the James P. White Lecture at the Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis. The lecture is named for the all-powerful longtime American Bar Association consultant on legal education. Roberts was in familiar surroundings, having grown up in Indiana, and he exuded collegiality and confidence, offering nice things to say about Justice John Paul Stevens (as a fellow midwesterner) and Justice Sonia Sotomayor (for her valued experience as a former trial judge) and, well, at least nothing negative to say about President Barack Obama.
Asked about his relationship with the two presidents he has served with, George W. Bush and Obama, Roberts said that whenever he has sat with either of them at official events, both he and the president were aware of all they couldn't talk about to each other, so they found safe topics of conversation -- baseball with Bush, and raising young kids with Obama. Somewhat bluntly, Robert said justices don't have much loyalty toward the president who appointed them, and don't spend time thinking about how their president would want them to rule in a certain case. After all, he said, justices are there for life. As for presidents? "They're gone."
Some other Roberts comments from the evening:
E-discovery: The chief justice voiced concern about the rising cost of litigation and particularly electronic discovery, which he said can "cost millions" and is scaring parties away from federal courts.
Trial judging: Asked by a trial judge in the audience if he would consider presiding over a trial in federal court, Roberts said flatly, but with a smile, "I wouldn't do it in a million years." Roberts explained that his predecessor William Rehnquist once presided over a trial in Virginia while a justice, only to have the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reverse him in an unsigned opinion. Roberts added that from his appellate experience with sentencing issues and mandatory minimum sentences, he would find sentencing in a criminal case particularly distasteful. "I wouldn't like doing it," he said with a frown.
Bonding With Colleagues: Roberts agreed with a questioner that the language of Court opinions has gotten more strident over the years, but he said the justices develop a close bond -- partly because unlike other workplaces, "we do the same thing," namely reading the same briefs and hearing the same arguments. And because of the confidentiality of deliberations, "we are the only people we can talk to" about pending decisions. He also indicated that dealing with capital cases together -- even though justices disagree -- is a difficult experience the justices all share.
Consensus-building: Asked to grade himself on his early goal of achieving greater consensus on the Court, Roberts said, "some years it has worked out better than others." But he said it's harder for justices to compromise on cases than it is for legislators to compromise on bills. He gave the example of a Fourth Amendment case where a justice either finds a violation or doesn't -- with not much room for compromise. He said he has encouraged more discussion among justices about cases than in the past in hopes of promoting consensus.
The Power of Architecture: The Court's power and independence don't just come from the Constitution, Roberts suggested in an interesting detour into architecture and geography. In his lecture, Roberts had shown a slide of the Court's former home in a room at the U.S. Capitol, replaced in 1935 by its current majestic home in its own building across the street. "Do you really think the Supreme Court would occupy the place it does today if it was still in the basement of the Capitol?" Roberts asked. "Architecture is substantive." Roberts also noted that when the new Capitol Visitors Center was being designed, the Court was offered the chance to have an underground tunnel built that would connect the Court with the center for visitors. But Rehnquist turned it down, Roberts said. Rehnquist wanted to stress the Court's separateness from the Congress, instead of just making it accessible through another corridor from the Capitol.
The Irrelevance of Law Reviews: A questioner struck a chord with Roberts by asking him how he uses law reviews in his work. "There is a growing disconnect between what is happening in the academy and ... in the real world," Roberts said. He seldom cites law reviews, Roberts said, adding that "they are not particularly helpful for practitioners and judges," though he acknowledged they may have value for others.