Chief Justice speaks at Rice
Published: Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 19, 2012 10:10
Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. arrived at Tudor Fieldhouse on the afternoon of Oct. 17 in the culmination of Rice’s Centennial celebration.
Roberts spoke to a crowd of approximately 4,750 faculty, staff, students, alumni and Houston community members and answered selected questions from audience members and President David Leebron.
Leebron and Roberts have known one another for 35 years, Roberts said, recalling their days on the Harvard Law Review, of which Leebron was president and Roberts was managing editor.
After an approximately 10-minute speech on Rice’s founding and history, Roberts introduced the question-and-answer portion of the presentation.
In response to the question of how students considering law should think of their options given declining job prospects, Roberts said students should think about why they want to become a lawyer.
“I think there are a lot of people who go to law school because they’re not good at math, and can’t think of anything else to do,” Roberts said. “It’s always a difficult profession, particularly these days. You have to have a reason.”
Roberts said that people should not think of the Supreme Court in terms of politics.
“We look at cases in terms of the law, not in terms of certain liberal or conservative agenda,” Roberts said. “There are ways of looking at the court that make more sense. Some of my colleagues prefer to adhere very strongly to the text and statute. Others of my colleagues like to look more expansively to the legislative history, the background of the statute, its purpose. Some of us think it’s very important what the framers of the Constitution were thinking about. Others take a more flexible view. Those [ways of looking at the court] make more sense.”
`Roberts said the framers of the Constitution deliberately set the Supreme Court up in a way that would allow justices to make decisions that may not be popular.
“We have pretty low approval ratings, but we’re better than the legislative or the executive branch,” Roberts said. “I think we’re low because people’s view of government is low. But we’re doing something different from the other branches. [The judicial branch] is the most transparent of the branches. The other branches don’t have to explain to you why they do what they do. We have to write opinions. Why? Precisely because we’re not political.”
Roberts said he believes the most daunting challenge for the court in the next 50 years is how they will determine how to apply the Constitution in cases as science and technology become increasingly advanced.
“When the framers wrote the Fourth Amendment about searches and seizures, did they envision wiretaps?” Roberts said. “Allowing people to intercept private conversations constituted the same sort of search and seizure of material that the framers wanted to detect, so we try to find the […] fundamental principle underlying what constitutional protection is and apply it to new issues and new technology. DNA is an obvious example. Is it search and seizure to take a tweezer of hair and match it to something else?”
He said he does not have an overarching judicial philosophy, but puts weight on what he believes the Founding Fathers were trying to accomplish. He has been most pleasantly surprised by the caliber and seriousness of discussion among justices that occurs in the conference room, he said.
“It’s not speeches, it’s very serious discussion about very serious issues, but there’s never been a voice raised in anger in that room,” Roberts said. “If you read our opinions, you’d think we were at each other’s throats [...] but we are extremely close. It’s a unique arrangement. You may work at an organization or corporation, but you do different things. We all do the same thing, decide the same cases, read the same briefs. You learn to get along.”