US chief justice worried about partisanship

AP News
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Posted: Sep 19, 2014 5:05 PM
US chief justice worried about partisanship

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern Friday about growing partisanship in the judicial confirmation process and a public perception that politics factor into the court's rulings.

Roberts told an audience at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law that the partisan atmosphere in Washington would make it unlikely for justices such as Antonin Scalia, widely viewed as a conservative, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is seen as liberal, to win confirmation today.

He pointed to the most recent U.S. Senate confirmation of Justice Elena Kagan in 2010, which fell largely on party lines. Roberts said the politics displayed through the process feeds the public's belief that the court is a political body akin to Congress and the White House. His remarks came during a public question-and-answer session sponsored by the university's Roman L. Hruska Institute for the Administration of Justice.

"I'm worried about people having that perception, because it's not an accurate one," Roberts told an audience estimated at 500. "It's not how we do our work, and it's important that we make that as clear as we can to the public."

Roberts was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005, in an era when the court is increasingly viewed as political and has broken in many rulings along liberal and conservative lines. But he said the nation's founding fathers "knew what they were doing" when they provided lifetime tenure for justices, without elections or partisanship.

"I don't want it to spill over and affect us," he said. "That's not the way we do business. We're not Republicans or Democrats."

Roberts, who rarely speaks in public, offered a glimpse of the court's inner workings and gave advice to lawyers who argue before the court. He said assigning cases is the best part of his job, and he tries to give each justice a mix of important cases and those he deemed "dogs."

He urged attorneys to keep their legal briefs short, noting that most are close to the 50-page average limit. Because of the length of each brief and the number the court receives, he said, a 35-page brief stands out.

"The first thing you do is look at the cover — because you like that lawyer," Roberts said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "The second thing you do is think, 'Well, he may have a good case, if it only takes him 35 pages to lay out his case. You're going to read that brief a lot more carefully.'"

Roberts acknowledged that the justices sometimes ask too many questions, to the point that he has to referee them.

Roberts was asked questions by the chief judge of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, William Jay Riley, who graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law.