Thursday, October 18, 2018

Chief Justice John Roberts reaffirms Supreme Court’s commitment to impartiality in university speech

Speaking to University of Minnesota law students on Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts addressed the political bitterness surrounding Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, pledging to remain independent and rise above the partisanship.

Roberts’ comments mark the first time he has publicly addressed Kavanaugh’s historically contentious confirmation process.

Serving one nation

During his opening statement in front of 2,700 students and attorneys, the justice talked about how members of the high court traditionally shake hands with one another before hearing oral arguments as a sign of unity and impartiality. Roberts went on to reference a speech Kavanaugh gave during his ceremonial swearing-in last week at the White House.

“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 an aisle, we do not caucus in separate rooms, we do not serve one party or one interest, we serve one nation,” Roberts said. “I want to assure all of you that we will continue to do that.”

The chief justice’s comments were a gesture of respect to the newest member of the high court, although he refused to go so far as to condemn Kavanaugh’s ultra-partisan confirmation process out of respect for the Constitution and a duty to remain politically neutral. Roberts referred only to “the contentious events in Washington in recent weeks” to reaffirm the importance of an independent judiciary, and he said he preferred to let the popular branches of government fight the political battles.

“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,” the chief justice said. “We do not speak for the people, but we speak for the Constitution. Our role is very clear: we are to interpret the laws and Constitution of the United States and ensure that the political branches act within them.”

He added: “That job obviously requires independence from the political branches.”

Above the political fray

Roberts went on to argue that when the Supreme Court made mistakes in the past, it was because the justices failed to preserve an independent judiciary and “yielded to political pressures.” He told the packed auditorium that the Supreme Court “would be very different without that sort of independence.”

“Without independence, there is no Brown v. Board of Education,” Roberts said, referring to the landmark 1954 decision that desegregated public schools. “Without independence, there is no West Virginia v. Barnette, where the court held that the government could not compel school children to salute the flag.”

Roberts’ speech came just over a week after Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by a razor-thin bipartisan margin. Kavanaugh fills a crucial vacancy left by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was considered the influential swing vote on the bench.

In an effort to resist a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats sought to stall Kavanaugh’s confirmation until midterm elections in November, when they could veto his nomination and force the president to appoint a more moderate justice. Republicans accused the left of using unsubstantiated sexual assault allegations from three different women to kill Kavanaugh’s chances.

Returning to business 

While Tuesday marks the first time that Roberts has publicly mentioned the confirmation process, the chief justice previously forwarded ethics complaints against Kavanaugh to federal judges in Colorado and neighboring states shortly after he was sworn to the high court. The first of these 15 complaints date back to Sept. 20 and deal with statements that Kavanaugh made during his confirmation process.

Lower court judges evaluating the complaints may find that “intervening events have rendered the allegations moot or make remedial action impossible,” said Arthur Hellman, an ethics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. But despite this underlying tension, all nine justices appeared to be in high spirits when they appeared in court for the first time with their newest colleague last week.

“We wish you a long and happy career in our common calling,” Roberts told Kavanaugh at the beginning of the Oct. 9 arguments. And with that, the highest court in the land left politics behind and returned to the serious business its justices were appointed to address.

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