Hail to the Chief Justice

Terry Eastland has a fascinating piece at The Weekly Standard about the success of Chief Justice John Roberts. Although he’s only been in his seat for short time, he’s had quite an impact:

JOHN ROBERTS HAS SAT IN the center seat of the Supreme Court a mere five months. Conventional wisdom holds that it takes four or five years for a new justice to hit his stride. Even so, Roberts’s work stands out in a Washington whose daily manufacture, it seems, is another fight between an irresponsible Congress and a president with cratering job-approval numbers. If you want to see excellence in government, consider the brief tenure of our new chief justice.

Under Roberts the Court has decided 39 cases. Roberts himself has written three opinions. Each was unanimous, the most recent being last week’s opinion upholding the access of military recruiters to college campuses (elsewhere in this issue). Each is well-written. Concision and clarity distinguish the opinions. Sentences do not wander about, nor fatten from authorial pomposity. Arguments are fairly addressed, distinctions cleanly drawn, decisions plainly stated. Nor has Roberts retired the dry humor on display during his hearings. The chief justice, and not his clerks, is clearly in charge of his own prose. Finally, and not a small point: His opinions are enormously persuasive.

With Chief Justice Roberts writing his own coherent, persuasive opinions, the other justices may find themselves pressured to do the same rather than relying so much on their clerks.

What’s particularly interesting is that Roberts has been using conference time to actually discuss the cases in front of the court rather than to just call for a vote:

Justices Stevens and Scalia have both complained over the years about the conferences held on the Fridays of weeks with oral arguments. It is then that the justices at least tentatively decide cases, and yet under Rehnquist the justices typically did little more than declare their votes. For Roberts to invite discussion means that Roberts himself has to come to the conference table fully prepared. That’s not hard to imagine. But the other justices have to come prepared as well, or risk embarrassment.

I thought these kinds of discussions were what normally took place. I pictured in my mind the members of the highest court in the land discussing the Constitution and how it applies to the cases that come before them. It’s amazing this wasn’t happening all along.

Finally, Terry ends with a prediction:

Over time, the Roberts effect may produce not only larger majorities and more stable rulings but also a Court that, thanks to conferences that really are conferences, pays more attention to working out the relevant law and less to mere politics. The distinction between law and politics is, of course, precisely what Roberts (and Samuel Alito) insisted upon during their confirmation hearings, and it lies at the heart of judicial conservatism. The prospect of the continuing advancement of that philosophy is a happy one, and a reason to say hail to this particular chief.

Chief Justice Roberts is living up the the hype. He’s exactly what we knew the Supreme Court needed.

The Success in Tall Afar
NH Jurist attempts to supplant the phrase "hanging judge"


  1. ed March 12, 2006
  2. bryanD March 12, 2006
  3. just me March 13, 2006
  4. wavemaker March 13, 2006
  5. lawhawk March 13, 2006