Friday, July 14, 2006
Close Votes in Late-Term Cases Were Not a Blow to Consensus-Building, Chief Justice Roberts Insists
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Close votes in some highly contentious end-of-term cases will not prove fatal to efforts to create greater consensus on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told lawyers and judges from across the west yesterday.
Roberts was the featured speaker on the final day of the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, which was held this year in Huntington Beach. The conference rotates around the circuit each year, with next year’s gathering scheduled for Honolulu.
In brief opening remarks, Roberts noted that he had never before spoken to a judicial conference outside of the D.C. Circuit and the Fourth Circuit, which he serves as circuit justice. In response to Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder, who in introducing Roberts reminded attendees that she had questioned his lack of western ties when he was nominated—“a deficiency we can do something about,” as she described it yesterday—the chief justice noted that he once clerked for a Honolulu firm and that he had argued several cases before the court.
Following his remarks, he responded to questions from a panel made up of Chief Judge Robert Lasnik of the Western District of Washington, Magistrate Judge Sandra Snyder of the Eastern District of California, and Sacramento attorney Peg Carew Toledo.
He said he felt vindicated in his efforts to have fewer cases decided by narrow majorities. “It promotes the rule of law, to the extent possible, to have the court speak with one voice,” he said.
But he cautioned that the court is “not a legislature” in which members can set aside deeply held views and “bargain” over how to cast their votes. If there are multiple grounds on which a case can be decided, however, it is better to resolve it by a 9-0 or 8-1 vote and leave the remaining issues for another day than to have a 5-4 decision deciding the case on a different basis, he said.
He scoffed at news accounts of a “breakdown of civility” after the court delivered closely divided rulings, with multiple opinions, in its recent rulings on Guantanamo detainee rights and Texas congressional reapportionment.
“We had the longest run of unanimous decisions in the history of the court” at one point, Roberts noted, insisting that a few cases do not create a trend in the opposite direction. Using a sports metaphor, he noted that “When [Joe] DiMaggio ended his 56-game hitting streak, the sportswriters didn’t say ‘he’s all washed up.’ ”
On other subjects, Roberts:
•Said he did not feel intimidated by the fact that his colleagues on the court all have been judges longer than he has. None of them have taken a condescending attitude, he said, suggesting that it was a “function of the profession” for lawyers to accept and implement sound ideas, even if they come from junior lawyers.
•Said he and his wife, an attorney, are facing “challenges...no different than other working families” in balancing their personal and professional lives. As parents of two young children, he said, they are keenly aware that “there will always be another judicial conference...but your child will only be five years old once.”
•Declared himself “strongly committed to improving relations between the judiciary and Congress,” noting that he has met recently with several key lawmakers, but declared that his “primary job” was “to do everything I can to preserve the independence of the judicial branch.”
•Expressed doubt that the court would move soon to allow television cameras into its own arguments or into the proceedings of lower courts. While broadcast coverage might have some benefit to the public, he said, the primary function of oral argument is not “to show the public how we function,” but to help decide cases, and where the justices are concerned, there is great “concern about the impact of the cameras on the process,” he said.
•Told the judges that the timing is right to seek an increase in judicial pay, and said he was committed to lobbying for it. He acknowledged that it is uncomfortable for judges to engage in public discussion of the pay issue, but said it was “critical” for judges to be paid “enough to educate their children and have a reasonable lifestyle,” lest the judiciary be made up solely of judges who were independently wealthy or were used to working for less than the judicial salary.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company