Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the former small town boy from Indiana who now presides over the highest court in the land, said today in a rare conversation that he doesn't believe justices should make their rulings based on "personal policy preferences," and spoke with enthusiasm about his respect for the separation of powers.
In a wide ranging discussion in front of a crowd of more than 3,000 people at the University of Miami, Roberts talked about his new job and his family and whether anybody can tell Justice Antonin Scalia what to do.
"Not a single person has voted for me and if we don't like what the people in Congress do we can get rid of them, you know, if you don't like what I do, it's kind of too bad. And that is to me an important constraint," Roberts said. "It means that I'm not there to make a judgment based on my personal policy preferences or my political preferences.
"The only reason, the reason I'm protected from those political pressures is because I'm supposed to make a decision based on the law," he said. "And so I don't think it would be a good idea to turn all the hard issues over to the courts. Those hard issues belong in Congress, they belong in the executive branch. Courts have the responsibility to make sure that those branches abide by the legal limits of the Constitution."
With self-deprecating humor, Roberts explained the events leading up to his nomination and the unforgettable televised presidential press conference in July 2005 when his young son, Jack Roberts, began dancing at the foot of President Bush.
"I'm there standing and the president is announcing the nomination," Roberts said. "I'm trying to think what to say in response and I look over at my wife and two children, then I look over at my wife and one child and it wasn't our fault, to be perfectly honest -- it was late, it was past their bedtime, it was 9 o'clock. People think Jack was dancing -- he was not dancing, he was being spider man, shooting the webs off."
His nomination almost didn't come off in the first place, as he revealed the chaos that occurred as he tried to rush home from a teaching stint in London when he was called back to Washington by the White House.
He nearly missed a call from the president offering him the top legal job in the country because the taxi driver bringing him from the airport got lost.
Roberts spoke about his own upbringing and leaving his life as captain of his high school football team for the academic rigor of Harvard, where he completed both undergraduate studies as well as law school.
At the time there were campus protests and political upheaval in the country, and Roberts felt stung by some students who seemed to be celebrating "in favor of our enemies." His first trip home from Harvard was his first time in an airplane.
From Harvard, Roberts went on to serve as a clerk to then associate Justice William Rehnquist, never dreaming that 25 years later he would inherit his seat.
Roberts also revealed details regarding the closed-door conferences the justices attend to begin secretly debating the cases on the docket.
"I have the same vote everybody else does. And we decide things as a collegial body after consultation," he said. "The chief justice really doesn't have a lot of authority of the sort that would cause you to refer to him as a boss."
He can't tell Scalia how to vote?
"I don't think anyone can tell Justice Scalia what to do," Roberts said.