Roberts stresses 'independence from the political branches'

Roberts stresses 'independence from the political branches'
© Greg Nash

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Tuesday stressed the independence of the high court while alluding to the bitter confirmation fight over fellow Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMcConnell sparks new Supreme Court fight Supreme Court confounding its partisan critics Gorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant MORE, who was installed on the bench earlier this month.

Roberts, in his first public remarks on the topic, acknowledged during an appearance at the University of Minnesota Law School "the contentious events in Washington" recently.

"I will not criticize the political branches. We do that often enough in our opinions," he said, adding that the judiciary "must be very different."

"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," Roberts said.

"We do not speak for the people, but we speak for the Constitution," he said. 

"That job obviously requires independence from the political branches."

Roberts spoke a week after Kavanaugh's first day on the Supreme Court following a brutal confirmation fight dominated by partisan brawling over the Trump nominee and controversy surrounding allegations of sexual assault leveled against Kavanaugh.

The chief justice's speech on Tuesday served as an attempt to distance the Supreme Court from the bitter fight on Capitol Hill and rancor surrounding the nomination.

Roberts mentioned a series of cases including, Brown v. Board of Education, that would not exist "without [judicial] independence" and pushed back on any attempts to yield to "political pressure."

"Now the court has, from time to time, erred and erred greatly," he said. "But when it has, it has been because the court yielded to political pressure, as in the Korematzu case, shamefully upholding the internment during World War II of Japanese American citizens."

Later in the question-and-answer portion of the event, Roberts said he thought preventing such mistakes came down to seeking the truth with humility.

"I don't know that there's a magic formula for making sure you don't make a mistake other than work as hard as you can, looking at the materials we have and the principles underlying the Constitution, and listen as carefully as you can to the views of all of your colleagues," he said.

He also touched on the need for justices on the high court to do their work collegially.

"I’m not talking about mere civility, though that helps," he said. "I am instead talking about a shared commitment to the exchange of ideas and views through each step of the decision process."

He referenced the tradition in the Supreme Court that justices shake hands before discussing or hearing a case.

"It’s a small thing, perhaps, but it is a repeated reminder that, as our newest colleague put it, we do not sit on opposite sides of the aisle," he said.

"We do not serve one party or one interest. We serve one nation," Roberts concluded. "And I want to assure you we will continue to do that to the best of our abilities, whether times are calm or contentious."