Supreme Court Chief Justice Emphasizes Court’s Independence, Adherence to Constitution

By Zachary Stieber

John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, spoke publicly on Oct. 16 for the first time since the bitter battle to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the court, emphasizing how the court doesn’t represent one party but America as a whole.

“We do not serve one party or one interest. We serve one nation,” Roberts said, speaking at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Kavanaugh was confirmed on Oct. 6 with a 50-48 vote by the Senate, replacing retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. The rancorous confirmation battle included sexual assault allegations—which included no witnesses or evidence—were still promoted by top Democrats.

Roberts said he wanted to touch on the Kavanaugh confirmation by explaining that the judiciary branch operates differently from the other branches by focusing on the Constitution, but said he would not criticize how public officials acted during the confirmation process.

“I have great respect for our public officials. After all, they speak for the people, and that commands a certain degree of humility from those of us in the judicial branch who do not. We do not speak for the people. Our role is very clear—we are to interpret the Constitution,” he said.

John Roberts in a file photo
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts speaks at the dedication of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Sept. 24, 2016. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Independence and Collegiality

Roberts noted that the independence of the court from political branches enables it to function properly.

“Without independence, there is no Brown v. Board of Education. Without independence, there is no West Virginia [State Board of Education] versus Barnette with the court held the government could not compel schoolchildren to salute the flag. Without independence, there is no Steel Seizure Case [Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer] where the court held President [Harry] Truman was subject to the Constitution even in a time of war,” he said.

“While the court has from time to time erred and erred greatly, but when it has, it is because the court yielded to political pressure, as in the case shamefully upholding the internment during world war II of Japanese-American citizens.”

And he emphasized how the justices on the court take the time to be collegial to each other, even if they hold different views and judgments.

“Those of us on the court know that the best way to do our job is to work together in a collegial way. I’m not talking about mere civility, although that helps. I’m instead talking about a shared commitment to a genuine exchange of ideas and views through each step of the process,” Roberts said.

The justices still continue the tradition set in the late 1800s of shaking each other’s hands before they go onto the bench to hear a case, or into a conference room to discuss a case.

Personal Beliefs

Roberts also answered a number of questions from students, including one who asked him to give an example of a case where the Supreme Court decided against his personal beliefs.

Roberts said the case that came to mind was when a Supreme Court decision upheld the right of members of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at funerals, since they protest on public sidewalks.

“It upheld their right to protest in that manner. I did not like it but I thought that that was the right answer,” he said.