In conversation with the US Chief Justice

By Scott Colvin

Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. provided a unique insight into the US legal system and issues facing the law during his visit to Melbourne Law School in July.

Few audiences have the chance to play witness to the world’s top legal minds. But this year, as part of the 2017 James Merralls Visiting Fellowship in Law, MLS welcomed Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr., to reflect on his life in law.

Chief Justice Roberts and colleague Professor Richard Lazarus from Harvard Law School delivered a week-long seminar at MLS, attended by academics, alumni and students, on the history of the Supreme Court.

At a public dialogue on the evening of 20 July, where Chief Justice Roberts was in conversation with then MLS Dean Professor Carolyn Evans, he reflected on his career in front of a packed audience.

Chief Justice Roberts has been witness to a substantial amount of US legal history, and is ideally situated to share Supreme Court tales. After completing undergraduate studies in history, His Honour gained a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School before working as a law clerk for Judge Henry J Friendly of the US Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit. This led to another clerk position, this time to then Associate Justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court, between 1980 and 1981.

Chief Justice Roberts remembered his time with Rehnquist fondly, and found the experience invaluable at that point in his burgeoning legal career.

“He was a brilliant jurist and a wonderful man – very unassuming,” he told the audience. “It was very easy and comfortable to be one of his law clerks.

“I was a little surprised, the job involved a lot of exchanges. Some judges or justices will have their clerks prepare memoranda preparing for arguing the case, but with Justice Rehnquist it was very much an oral discussion.”

Between the high-minded legal discussions, Rehnquist also had time for lighter affairs.

“Quite often, since we were in the neighbourhood [of the Supreme Court], we would be stopped by tourists visiting and they would ask us to take a picture of them in front of the Court and Justice Rehnquist was always happy to oblige,” Chief Justice Roberts said.

There are dozens of families around the country with a beautiful picture of themselves in front of the Court who don’t know it was taken by a justice of the Court.

Fittingly, it was Rehnquist whom he replaced as Chief Justice in 2005, when nominated for the position by President George W. Bush. At the time, Chief Justice Roberts was serving as an appellate judge on the District of Columbia circuit.

US Chief Justice
Above image: Chief Justice Roberts in conversation with then MLS Dean Professor Carolyn Evans. Image credit: Paul Pasztaleneic

“By then I had been practising for 25 years, both in government and out of it, and in private practice I was arguing cases before the appellate courts, including the DC circuit,” he said. “I thought it was time for a change and to see what it was like on the other side of the bench.”

Despite his exceptional career as an advocate, his new role on the bench was not without its challenges.

“What was hard was making the adjustment. As a private lawyer, you’re used to seeing the case and saying ‘Okay, this is my position, I’m going to advance it’, and you see things from that perspective.

“When you get to be a judge and you go through the questions and analyse it, you think ‘Okay, this is the right result’.

“And I remember sitting down to write an opinion and treating it like a brief — here is the right result, and here are all of the reasons that support that. It took a while to step back and realise that you’re not arguing for a result; you’re explaining a conclusion.”

More than just judicial history, Chief Justice Roberts has seen a large amount of US political history in his career. He was Special Assistant to the US Attorney General from 1981 to 1982, before serving as Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan from 1982 to 1986. Chief Justice Roberts also held the position of Principal Deputy Solicitor General in the George HW. Bush administration, from 1989 to 1993.

He found the dual experience of government and the private sector valuable for enhancing his legal skills.

You’re certainly a much better private sector attorney if you have experience with the government side, and vice versa.

It’s good for judges to have that perspective, and good for lawyers in general.

As for his own time on the highest bench, Chief Justice Roberts emphasised striking the right balance in marshalling the Court’s legal forces.

“You want to make sure at the end of the year that everyone’s got a fair number of big cases along with the little ones; interesting cases and the dull ones; cases that are unanimous; cases that are sharply divided.

“And you’ve got to get the work done.”

The last question of the night was what advice Chief Justice Roberts may have for today’s law students. His Honour encouraged young legal minds to persevere.

"If you are going to make it [law] a career, make sure it is something you are really committed to, and then it should be a good choice,” he said.

Banner image: Chief Justice Roberts and Professor Richard Lazarus (centre) with members of their seminar class.

Credit: Sarah Fisher

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 18, November 2017