Chief Justice Roberts: a first-hand account of history

A packed theatre at Melbourne Law School had the honour of hearing first hand from the Honorable John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the United States, in conversation with Professor Carolyn Evans, at a public event in late July.

The Chief Justice, who was visiting MLS under the 2017 James Merralls Visiting Fellowship in Law, had throughout the week led a seminar at MLS, taking a captivated audience through the history of the U.S. Supreme Court as told through each of its Chief Justices.

With the evening’s conversation, Roberts brought the discussion of the Court’s history to the modern day, reflecting on his own career in law.

The Chief Justice is ideally situated to talk about Supreme Court history: after completing a Juris Doctor at Harvard Law School, Roberts worked as a law clerk for Judge Henry J. Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, before serving as a law clerk to then-Justice Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perhaps fittingly, it was Rehnquist who Justice Roberts replaced as Chief Justice in 2005, when he was nominated for the position by President Bush. At the time, Roberts was serving as an appellate judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

“By then I had been practicing 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. I thought it was time for a change and to see what it was like on the other side of the bench,” he said.

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

“As a private lawyer, you’re used to seeing the case and saying ‘OK this is my position; I’m going to advance it’ — and you see things from that perspective.”

“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,” Roberts said.

More than just the judiciary, Roberts has seen a large amount of US political history in his career, as well. He was Special Assistant to the US Attorney-General from 1981 to 1982, before serving as Associate Counsel to the President, this time from 1982 to 1986. Roberts also held the position of Principal Deputy Solicitor-General in the first Bush administration, from 1989 to 1993.

He found the dual experience of government and the private sector valuable in 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,” he said.

As for his own time at the highest bench, 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,” he said.

By Scott Colvin

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