At Hill, Chief Justice Roberts offers advice, laughs

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By Kyle Swanson, Daily News Editor
Published September 13, 2009

Speaking before a crowded Hill Auditorium, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts shared his insights and a couple of laughs as he fielded questions from audience members during his visit to the University last weekend.

Roberts was on campus to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the University’s Law School. While at the University, he participated in a wide range of events, including attending the weekend’s Notre Dame game at the Big House. The question-and-answer session was open only to faculty, staff, students and alumni of the Law School.

Law School Dean Evan Caminker introduced Roberts and began the event by asking Roberts a series of questions.

When asked what surprised him most when becoming a member of the court, Roberts told audience members he was surprised by the level of camaraderie between the justices.

“We read the same cases, we read the same briefings, we go to the same arguments, we struggle with the same issues and even if we come out on opposite sides of the same issue that does create a very close bond,” Roberts said. “You do feel like a part of the family right away.”

Caminker also asked Roberts what he would say if President Barack Obama asked him what qualities he would like to see in a new Supreme Court justice.

“He could save a lot of trouble by giving me an extra vote,” Roberts said jokingly.

In light of the recent appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an audience member asked Roberts if justices are concerned about who will fill a vacancy on the court when one exists.

“There’s a great deal of concern,” Roberts said emphasizing the influence a justice’s vote has and the long tenure many justices serve.

Another audience member asked Roberts if he could foresee any problems he or other members of the Court may have with Sotomayor.

“I think she’s going to be a delightful, wonderful colleague,” Roberts said. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to serve on the court with her.”

Roberts was also asked if he felt justices, many who have attended Ivy League universities, may not be able to fully grasp the problems of the common man brought before the court.

“First of all, I disagree with your premise,” Roberts said. “Not all of the justices went to elite institutions; some went to Yale.”

After a hearty laugh by members of the crowd, Roberts, who attended Harvard Law School, continued: “I will pay for that.”

Roberts continued to answer the question by explaining the court’s role as an institution that relies on lawyers to represent the problems of their clients and properly educate the justices on the issues being considered.

Caminker asked Roberts whether he thought this was a good time to be the chief justice.

“Everybody on the court wishes they were John Marshall, but that is like saying every basketball player wishes they were Michael Jordan,” Roberts said.

Another audience member asked Roberts why the Court is hearing fewer cases than it historically has.

Roberts responded by saying it’s impossible for anyone to know the reason why.

Asked why the Court does not immediately release the audio recordings of all oral arguments, Roberts said he appreciates and understands the concern, but that the release of the audio recordings can change how the process functions.

“It’s a good question,” Roberts said. “It’s sort of an ongoing debate, and it’s obviously not my decision alone.”

As is popularly known among legal circles, the Supreme Court has a basketball court above the actual courtroom of the Supreme Court. Caminker asked Roberts about his use of the facility, jokingly calling it “the highest court in the land.”

“I did not exhibit the sort of skills you’d expect someone from Indiana to show,” Roberts said of his use of the court’s basketball facilities.

One member of the audience asked Roberts, on the eighth anniversary of Sept. 11, how Roberts made sense of the balance between security and freedom and if his opinion of the balance had changed in the last eight years.

“It is Sept. 11, and I do think we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve forgotten what that means,” Roberts said. “It’s worth pausing and remembering that people, younger than most of you here, are, at this very moment, dying and defending the freedoms that we all enjoy.”

Roberts continued to say, “It’s a difficult question,” and is one that generalities cannot fully answer.

One audience member asked Roberts what he would like to see changed or added to the curriculum for law students.

“I think there ought to be more focus on a sort of shared educational experience,” Roberts said. “I think, for example, that everyone who graduates from a university in this country ought to know what the Federalist Papers are; they ought to know who Shakespeare is.”

Roberts continued by saying the same thing should be true for law students, saying that all first-year law students should take classes that focus on basic topics like a course on anti-trust or international law.

Many members who attended the event said having Roberts as the keynote speaker was one of the reasons they decided to come back for the 150th anniversary celebration.

Dona Tracy, a 1976 Law School graduate, said the opportunity to hear Roberts speak was a big draw for her, and that coming back to the University made her remember why she first wanted to be a lawyer.

“It’s wonderful to be back,” Tracy said. “I think what’s nice is that as an attorney that has been practicing, and I think most attorneys feel so involved in the day-to-day work practicing law, it’s nice to come back to the Law School to be inspired by the ideals that brought us here in the first place.”

David Weinman, a 1962 graduate of the Law School, said coming back to campus made him remember his glory days at the University.

Weinman said while at the University he saw then-President John F. Kennedy propose the creation of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union and that the speech inspired him to found and become the director of the Peace Corps program in Turkey.

University President Mary Sue Coleman, who attended the event, said she enjoyed listening to Roberts and was happy he agreed to come to Ann Arbor for the weekend.

“I loved the session in Hill,” Coleman said. “It’s been a special thrill to have the chief justice here. He has given us so much time.”