U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts stressed the judiciary's commitment to independence amid political turmoil when he spoke Tuesday to a full Northrop auditorium at the University of Minnesota.
Roberts was there as part of a lecture series endowed by former U Law School Dean Robert Stein. But before he sat down with Stein, he took a few minutes before the start of the question-and-answer session to address the crowd of 2,700, saying he wanted to comment on recent "contentious events in Washington."
"I will not criticize the political branches," Roberts said. "We do that often enough in our opinions."
The crowd, most of whom gave him a standing ovation before and after he spoke, chuckled. The ticketed event held at Northrop auditorium was sold out. After his prepared remarks, Roberts took questions for about 45 minutes on the stage. In the final 15 minutes, he answered queries from audience members.
The justice appeared relaxed, chatting readily with Stein on court-related topics ranging from how lawyers should write their briefs and act during oral arguments to their lunch habits and the time he quoted Hibbing native Bob Dylan in an opinion.
Stein also asked Roberts about his stated goal of having decisions with a strong majority, as opposed to a 5-4 split. That remains a project in progress, Roberts said.
"I still think it's an important objective because judicial decisions should be narrower rather than broader," he said. The broader a decision, the harder to find agreement among the nine justices, he said.
Robert's appearance was planned for months, but came hard on the heels of the emotional U.S. Senate confirmation process for the newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by a woman of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers.
In his opening comments, Roberts said the judicial branch is much different from the legislative branch, which is representative of the citizenry.
"We do not speak for the people; we speak for the Constitution," he said. Because of that, Roberts said the judiciary requires independence.
He went on to cite cases that demonstrated just that, including Brown v. Board of Education, in which the court ruled that the racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. He also cited the Youngstown Steel case from 1952 when the court rebuffed President Truman's attempt to seize private property.
"The role of the court is to protect minority rights against the majority," he said.
When the judiciary yields to politics, he said, bad decisions are made such as in Korematsu v. United States, which he said "shamefully" upheld as constitutional the internment of Japanese Americans into camps during WWII, regardless of whether they were U.S. citizens.
He emphasized that the court will maintain independence. "We will continue to do this to the best of our abilities whether times are calm or contentious," he said.
Contrary to the environment in much of Washington, Roberts emphasized that the justices do their jobs in a "collegial way" so they can have "a genuine exchange of ideas." For example, they shake hands before they go on the bench and before they go into conference. When they're in session, the justices eat lunch together and talk of cases is barred.
Roberts' advice to lawyers who submit briefs to the court: Keep it short. When he gets a brief shorter than the 50-page limit, Roberts joked that he'll pause, look to see who the lawyer is and say to himself, "Whoa, I like her." Shorter briefs also tend to be better written and focused.
When lawyers come for oral arguments, he urged dispassion: Don't push back against hypotheticals from the justices. That way, he said, the lawyers and justices can figure out the issues together.
Stein asked Roberts why he put a Bob Dylan quote in an opinion: "Was it just to make the opinion more interesting?"
Roberts said, no, but it was to make a point understandable for those who aren't lawyers. The line: "When you have nothing, you've got nothing to lose." He was explaining that to file a lawsuit against someone, you must have something at stake in the fight.
Stein asked Roberts if he heard from Dylan, but the chief justice said no. Roberts, however, did get into a dispute with the New York Times over his polishing the line from Dylan's singing, "When you ain't got nothing."
The audience, packed with dignitaries including former Vice President Walter F. Mondale and the entire state Supreme Court, was warm to Roberts. During the question-and-answer session from college students, he faced inquiries about how he stayed motivated in law school, what he thought of the Socratic method and "what is race?"
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Roberts has been at the helm of the court since 2005 after he was nominated by President George W. Bush. He worked in the Reagan administration and served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for two years.