Chief Justice Roberts Speaks At RPI

Apr 12, 2017

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts spoke Tuesday afternoon at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas was there.

The Troy event, billed as a conversation with RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson, revealed a humorous side of Chief Justice Roberts , who was nominated for the post in 2005 by President George W. Bush after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist.  "If I didn't have life tenure, and had to stand for election the next year, I wouldn't vote for me. [audience chuckles]... The whole point, and the framers understood this, is that judges were not supposed to be popular, they were supposed to issue decisions consistent with the law and the Constitution."

The Roberts event marked the second Capital Region visit by a Supreme Court justice in as many weeks after appearances in Albany by Sonia Sotomayor.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts with RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson on stage at EMPAC.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Roberts warmed up the audience with a slide show, presenting an informative and at times entertaining history of his predecessors.   Afterward he welcomed Jackson to the stage at EMPAC, Jackson eventually quizzing her on the confirmation process that led up to Monday's swearing-in of Justice Neil Gorsuch by President Trump. Roberts answered that, although partisanship is of great concern, the Supreme Court has continued its work "in a completely non-partisan way."  "It is very difficult, I think, for a member of the public to look at what goes on in confirmation hearings these days, which is a very sharp conflict in political terms, in Democrats and Republicans, and not think that the person who comes out of that process must similarly share that same sort of partisan view of public issues and public life. That's very unfortunate because we in the judiciary do not do our business in a partisan ideological manner. The new justice is not a Republican and not a Democrat. He's a member of the Supreme Court. But it's hard for people to understand that when they see the process that leads up to it."

Roberts told Jackson the court receives about 8,500 petitions a year but only hears about 75 of them, and the court's business is "not of correcting mistakes." "We look for problems of uniformity. If you have a federal court of appeals in California that says you can deduct this expense on your taxes and one in New York, same question, and it says you can't, there's gotta be one answer, and we're the people who provide it, so we'll take that tax case."

Roberts conceded that fast-paced changes such as modern-day recording techniques and DNA sampling are two examples of the impact technology is having on everyday life and legal processes. Jackson wondered if there's a chance that Supreme Court proceedings would someday be televised.  "We might end up talking like they do in Congress. [laughter] You know it's all, oh, 'with all due deference to the good judgement of my good friend from wherever, and I wonder if this and this...' No. We wanna directly get to the answer. I think cameras would inhibit that."

The conversation continued, with students eventually asking the Chief Justice pre-selected questions on topics ranging from cases involving minority rights to partisan politics to "fake news."  Time after time, Roberts made it clear that his job is not to enforce universal truth but to enforce the Constitution. “It is not our job to represent the people of the United States. That’s the job of the people across the street, in Congress. Our job is to interpret the law to the best of our ability.”

The entire conversation between Roberts and Jackson with the student Q and A segment is posted in two parts below.