Interview With Chief Justice Roberts

ByABC News
November 17, 2006, 11:03 AM

— -- JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, thank you for sitting down with me tonight for this very intimate conversation about your life and the law before 3,000 members of the U family, I guess, we have here tonight.

I thought that we could start by looking back to the summer of 2005. Justice O'Connor had just announced her retirement and the president was getting ready to make his first nomination to the Supreme Court, and you got on a plane and went to London.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Yes. Yeah, I was so confident of my prospects that I decided to leave the country.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: So you were teaching a class.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I was. I was teaching a class at University College in London and I got a call that I needed to come back. They asked if I could come back for an interview with the president. It turns out I could and Thursday, got on a plane and came back for the interview on Friday. Saturday, flew back to London to pick up my teaching responsibilities and Sunday night got a call that I needed to be on the first plane back Tuesday morning.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Now when you left on Saturday, you left DC, no one said, you know, 'don't go,' so did you think then…?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, I didn't know how quickly they were going to make their decision. I very much enjoyed the interview with the president, but I didn't leave feeling I was going to have a new job.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: How long did it last?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: The interview? A good bit more than an hour, not two hours, but more than an hour.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And did you have a sense of what he was looking for or what kind of qualities he…?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: First of all, I very much enjoyed it. It surprised me. He has a wonderful way of putting people at ease. I felt very comfortable talking with him. I was very impressed by the points he was making and the kind of questions he was asking, and I left feeling very upbeat, not so much about my chances, but about the process and the sort of things that the president was interested in.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: What was an example of a question he asked?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, I haven't talked to anybody about what actually happened during the interview and I don't think I should. I think that's a private matter between the president and me.

But from the point of view, I was a judge at the time and a lawyer who practiced a lot before the Supreme Court, and I thought the sort of issues he was raising were exactly the kind of things you'd want someone who had the responsibility of making this appointment to be focusing on.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Okay so then you flew back to London on Saturday, then you said you got the phone call the next day?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: The next day, that I needed to be on the first flight back Tuesday. So I kind of scrambled. I had to teach the class Monday morning and got up at 3:30 in the morning London time Tuesday to catch the first flight out of Heathrow. Now, I don't know if you all remember, but in 2005 was when they had the very horrible subway bombings in London and where I was teaching was right near there. So it was cordoned off and I was coming back for good. I only had a couple more classes, so I wasn't going to come back.

So I had all my stuff and I'm wandering around the streets of London at 3:30 in the morning trying to get a cab to get back, finally get it, get to Heathrow and go into the terminal, where my plane is, and I'm passing this long line of people and I remember feeling very sorry for them, because they obviously had some difficulty that they were waiting in line and this line snaking around.

And then as I turned right, you know, I noticed the line was turning right, too, and, sure enough, it was my flight that was the problem. All the computers were down, and I got turned around and went back to the end of the line.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Were you worried that if you missed your flight, you're not going to be…?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, I was sure that things were moving and the White House was a very efficient operation and I'm sure if I wasn't there, they'd just go down the list and take whoever was next.

So I was getting a little nervous. Eventually, they checked everybody on and I had a long flight back, got into…

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Again, you didn't know.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: No. There were no promises that anything was going to happen. It was kind of, you just sort of have to be present to win, but it doesn't mean that you're going to get anything.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: You knew if you stayed you weren't going to be the nominee.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Right, and I remember we landed and I was going through customs in Dulles and on the Blackberry, I got an urgent message to call the White House right away. And if you've been to Dulles, customs, you know, every 10 feet, they have this big sign saying, "If you use a cell phone, it will be confiscated immediately." So I couldn't do that.

I couldn't very well jump out of the line at customs without attracting a lot of attention. But then I finally got through and I called and they said I needed to be home by 12:30 for a phone call.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And what time was it?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: It was 11:40 exactly and it takes exactly that long to get from Dulles to my house. So I had just enough time. I remember diving into the first cab, yelling out where I needed to go and the cab driver turning around and saying, "This is my first day on the job. Where is this place, Chevy Chase?"

But I was yelling directions at him the whole time and I got home at 12:30, threw a bunch of money at him that I think were English pounds. And as I walked in the door, the phone was ringing and it was the call from the White House.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And the White House, was it the president on the line?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: No, it wasn't. It was his counsel, Harriet Miers. And I have to tell you, I'm a nervous enough sort that my first reaction is, well, this isn't good news, because if they were going to offer me the job, it would be the president calling.But then I chatted with her for a little while and then she put me on hold and then the president came on and offered me the job.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: What did you say?


CRAWFORD GREENBURG: So you went down to the White House, got ready, and then I guess, at some point, it was time to go out and the president was going to introduce you to the nation. How long had you been awake at that point?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Almost 24 hours, you know, 3:30 in London, whatever that translates at, but I was certainly going on adrenaline.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: So you go out, reporters and cameras everywhere and the president is heaping praise on you and your wife and children are there and your 5-year-old son starts fidgeting…

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, I'm there standing and the president is announcing the nomination. I'm trying to think what to say in response and I look over and see my wife and two children. Then I look over and see my wife and one child. And it wasn't our fault, to be perfectly honest. It was late, it was past their bedtime.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Was it around 9:00?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: It was 9:00 and we didn't realize. I kind of thought, when they said, "Please, bring the kids," sure. And it's an important moment, I figured they should be there, but I kind of assumed they'd be off, like way in the back up there or something while it was all going on.

And jus before the announcement, someone told Jane, "All right, go after the kids and stand there right next to the lectern." And Jane immediately said, "Well, that's not a very good idea," but it was boom, boom, boom and they were standing there.People think Jack was dancing. He was not dancing. He was being Spiderman. He was shooting the webs off…

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: But did he think the cameras were there for him? Was he performing?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Yes, you know, there were spotlights and he figured, 'I might as well take advantage of it.' And I remember thinking—well, what I was thinking was what any father and husband would think, which is why isn't Jane doing anything. And later on, on the ride home, she explained, and I think quite correctly, that if she had tried to do anything, there was no telling what Jack would have done and it would have escalated a little bit.

But the cameras were at the president's shoulders and above, so we got through it all right.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Could you hear the president or was it distracting?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: No. I kind of pretended it wasn't happening and just tried to listen to what was going on.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: So you got the kids home, got them in bed. Then you spent the next month or six weeks getting ready for your hearings?


CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And then the weekend before they were to begin, the chief justice died?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Yes. It was a Saturday night and the hearings—before Labor Day, the hearings were supposed to start Tuesday. So I had actually gone to bed early to get rested up for them and Jane came up and woke me up and told me the sad news.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And, of course, you had clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist when he was associate justice with Dean. When did you get the sense that the president was thinking about you and was planning to nominate you to take your old boss's place?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: The next day he called, the president called and asked me to come down to the White House to talk to him then.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And you went down that afternoon?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Went down and we talked that afternoon. He didn't make a decision, at least didn't share it with me until the next morning.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: So that was right before he announced?


CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Because he announced it that next morning?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: That morning, the morning of Labor Day, yes.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And then the next day, you were a pallbearer and you helped carry Rehnquist's casket into the great hall of the Supreme Court?


CRAWFORD GREENBURG: How did you process, I mean, if that had been a movie, it would almost be—here you are taking your, almost too much. How did you process all that?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, you know, my own situation kind of gets put on the back burner. He was a great man who served his country very well his whole life and it was quite amazing, first, to have the opportunity to bring his casket up into the court for the last time.

I remember thinking, I know several of us did, it really was emblematic of the man. It was a plain pine casket, unvarnished, with the flag over it, of course, and that was, I thought, a very fitting tribute, because he was very straightforward and plain and very much a patriot. So it was very appropriate.

And you could tell, carrying the casket up past the other justices, the other court employees, the other clerks, how much he meant to so many of them and I was just very fortunate to be able to participate in that.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Many people have suggested that the chief justice very much looked forward to sitting on the bench with one of his former clerks. If he had lived until after you were confirmed, you two would have been sitting on the bench together. You would have taken Justice O' Connor's seat. Did you ever talk to him about that?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: We didn't talk about it, no. I had a very nice note from him, though, referring to that, just saying he was looking forward to sitting with me.CRAWFORD GREENBURG: And what were your feelings about it?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, I also was very much looking forward to it. You know, he was such an important person in my life, not only gave me the opportunity to be one of his law clerks, but I had the opportunity to argue in front of him many times.He wasn't always a friendly questioner and I certainly didn't always get his vote, but it gave me a great deal of respect for him from a different perspective, not only seeing him function as a justice, but also being an advocate in front of him was a very different perspective.

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Do you ever just stop and think I am the chief justice of the United States? Has that sunk in for you?

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: You know I appreciate that it's a very important responsibility, but it's one of those things I think, if you think about it too much, it can be paralyzing. You have the job to do to try to decide the cases according to the rule of law as best as you can, to work with the other justices toward that end, and you don't want to think about it too much.But it's almost every day that it…

CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it is every day.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: … that I leave my office kind of through a side door that takes me past the formal entrance and there's a little brass plaque on the door that says "the chief justice," and I still kind of feel that I have to be a little quiet so I don't disturb him.