Roberts gives light law lecture

Chief justice's speech draws laughs at state Judicial Conference

May 19, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

CAMBRIDGE -- He joked about how he wouldn't tell lawyer jokes and about the scowl of a famously gruff colleague. He laughed about a case he argued and lost six years ago before Maryland's highest court. And he promised to do all he could as chief justice of the United States to protect the independence of the state and federal judiciaries.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. told the annual meeting of the Maryland Judicial Conference yesterday that threats to the nation's judicial independence are not nearly as direct as those faced by foreign judges he meets who are struggling to establish the kind of legal system that Americans sometimes take for granted.

"The real sense of awe they have when they visit the Supreme Court is not a reflection of their view of the building," he said. "It's a reflection of their understanding of what it represents - that judges in our country are able to base their decisions on the rule of law and not simply on the sway of power or politics."

It was a message that resonated with the 400 or so judges and lawyers in the audience - many of whom expressed pleasant surprise that the man presiding over the nation's highest court was so entertaining.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels said he appeared once before former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in September.

"He was so tall and imposing and projected this stern, no-nonsensical personality that didn't appear to be the warm, friendly side that Chief Justice Roberts projected," Daniels said. "His appearance here at the judicial conference makes it the most memorable conference of our tenure."

Roberts, 51, served as associate counsel to President Reagan and sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He was sworn in as chief justice in September.

Yesterday, he spoke for 19 minutes to the conference. He received two standing ovations and had to wait several times for the crowd's laughter to subside.

He told the group that he arrived on the Eastern Shore after having heard the last session of oral arguments in his first term on the court, marking the start of the justices' busiest season as they try to wrap up their written opinions by the end of June.

"I do feel at this point a bit like the fellow who jumped off the Empire State Building, passed the 50th floor and said, `So far, so good,'" Roberts quipped. "The hard part's coming up."

He remembered arguing a case before the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2000 in the middle of a blizzard and being surprised when the judges - several of whom were in the audience yesterday - ruled against him on the grounds that the case should not have been brought as a declaratory judgment action.

"So I know when lawyers who appear before my court are chagrined and say the court has dodged the issue on some procedural nicety," he said.

And Roberts spoke of the little-known traditions that he said he has tried to quickly absorb since becoming the first new justice in 11 years to join the high court.

At his first Supreme Court conference, Roberts was munching on a pastry when Justice Antonin Scalia informed him that providing breakfast at the regular morning meetings was something that Rehnquist had taken care of for his colleagues.

"I made a mental note that that was something I had to continue," Roberts recalled.

But moments later, then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor approached the new chief justice to explain that his predecessor "used to get five or 10 bucks from each of us to pay for the pastries," Roberts said. "I don't know if you've ever seen Justice Scalia scowl, but I can tell you that Justice O'Connor has."

He struck a more serious note in discussing judicial independence. Some judges, including Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, said the topic hit home in a state where a judge was targeted for impeachment after ruling that a law defining marriage as being between a man and a woman was unconstitutional.

"It's a good opportunity here ... to assure you that I am committed to doing what I can to promote and protect the independence of the judiciary, both state and federal," Roberts said.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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