Acknowledging what he described as “the contentious events in Washington in recent weeks,” Roberts ― speaking to a packed auditorium at the University of Minnesota ― stressed the importance of keeping the judiciary separate from “political branches” and warned of the dangers that can arise when the court bows to political pressure.
“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.”
“That job obviously requires independence from the political branches,” he continued.
Roberts, who was nominated to the court by then-President George W. Bush in 2005, noted that the history of the Supreme Court “would be very different without that sort of independence.”
“Without independence, there is no Brown v. Board of Education,” he said, referring to the landmark 1954 decision that outlawed segregated 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 acknowledged that the Supreme Court had “yielded to political pressure” in the past, but said those were examples of times when the court “erred and erred greatly.”
He cited the 1944 Korematsu case as an example, when the court “shamefully” upheld the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.
Roberts’ comments, made about a week after Kavanaugh’s induction onto the nation’s highest court, mark the first time the chief justice has spoken publicly on the topic of his colleague’s confirmation process. Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, fills a vacancy left by Anthony Kennedy, who’d been a key swing vote on the bench.
In his remarks, Roberts quoted Kavanaugh, citing comments the new justice had made at his swearing-in ceremony.
“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, to the best of our abilities, whether times are calm or contentious.”
Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor have also spoken out recently about the importance of an independent judiciary.
Speaking at a Princeton University event earlier this month, Kagan said the court needed to guard its “reputation of being fair, of being impartial, of being neutral, and of not being some extension of the terribly polarized political process and environment that we live in.”
Sotomayor concurred, saying at the same event of her eight colleagues: “We have to rise above partisanship and our personal relationships. We have to treat each other with respect and dignity and a sense of amicability that the rest of the world doesn’t often share.”