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Chief Justice Roberts emphasizes Supreme Court’s independence

Speaking at the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis on Tuesday afternoon, Chief Justice John Roberts took a few minutes to address the “contentious events in Washington of recent weeks.”

“I will not criticize the political branches,” Roberts began, choosing instead to “emphasize how the judicial branch is—how it must be—very different.” Unlike public officials, members of the judicial branch “do not speak for the people, but we speak for the Constitution.”

“Our role is very clear,” Roberts maintained: “We are to interpret the Constitution and laws of the United States and ensure that the political branches act within them.”

To do this job, Roberts stressed, “obviously requires independence from the political branches.” As exemplars of cases requiring independence, he cited school-desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, free-speech case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer, a case on the limits of presidential authority during war.

“The court has from time to time erred and erred greatly,” Roberts admitted, “but when it has, it has been because the court yielded to political pressure,” as in Korematsu v. United States, upholding the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

In addition to judicial independence, Roberts stressed collegiality, “which he described as a “shared commitment to a genuine exchange of ideas and views through each step of the decision process. We need to know at each step that we are in this together.”

A “concrete expression of that collegiality” is found “in a tradition that has prevailed for over a century.” Before taking the bench for oral argument or entering the conference room to discuss cases, the justices shake each other’s hands.

Roberts did not mention Justice Brett Kavanaugh by name, but Roberts did quote his newest colleague as saying that “we do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation.”

“I want to assure all of you,” Roberts said in closing, “that we will continue to do that to the best of our abilities whether times are calm or contentious.”

Following these remarks, Roberts spoke as planned with Professor Robert Stein, former dean of the law school. Among other topics, Roberts restated his opposition to television coverage of oral arguments, even as he acknowledged potential benefits. In response to one student following up on Roberts’ earlier statement about not speaking for the people, Roberts clarified that he meant that the court’s role is to support viewpoints not necessarily held by the majority.

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Chief Justice Roberts emphasizes Supreme Court’s independence, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 17, 2018, 12:26 AM),