MOSCOW, Idaho – John Roberts isn’t too concerned that more people can name the judges on “American Idol” than can name him or the other members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s nice to be not always recognizable,” the chief justice of the United States said when asked about a recent survey that showed the cast of the popular television show was much better known than members of the nation’s highest court.
The bigger concern is that many people don’t know how the courts function, or understand their role in applying the law rather than making it, Roberts told an overflow crowd Friday afternoon at the University of Idaho College of Law as part of the school’s Bellwood Lecture series
Asked for his definition of justice, Roberts said it involved applying principles to facts in an objective way, regardless of his personal feelings. For example, he said, he would consider the burning of an American flag to be a horrible act, but the fact is that previous courts have recognized a First Amendment right to that action.
“What is morally just and right – that’s not my job,” he said.
Roberts said he does not agree with some suggested changes for the court, which would include letting a separate panel decide which cases the court accepts and staggered terms of 18 years for justices, allowing each president to appoint two members of the court.
“It would make the court more political because it would make it more answerable to the political branches,” he said.
The process is already too political, with senators asking nominees during confirmation hearings how they would rule on an issue, he said.
“It’s wrong,” Roberts said.
In his lecture, Roberts urged law students to take lessons from Abraham Lincoln, who was an accomplished lawyer before he was president.
Lincoln never set foot in Idaho, although he did have a hand in setting its borders and named its first territorial governor, the chief justice noted. The law college is marking its centennial in the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, he added.
Like most attorneys of his day, Lincoln didn’t go to law school and learned it by reading and working for other lawyers, Roberts said. He was a generalist who studied many things and was continually learning. He understood human nature and had a strong internal compass that allowed him to excel when he believed he was right.
Lincoln’s papers show he prepared a lecture on the legal profession, which he apparently never gave. Its main points are still valid, Roberts said: Be diligent, practice public speaking for those times in the spotlight before a jury, but don’t shy away from “the drudgery of the law” either; discourage litigation whenever possible, and be a peacemaker. Be honest, and be willing to engage in public service.
Lincoln, he said, “had an irrepressible desire to do what is right.”