Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday it's up to each member of the Supreme Court to decide whether to attend the president's State of the Union addresses, but he wouldn't discuss whether he thinks the speeches should be a forum for the executive branch to critique the court's decisions.
"I have said what I have to say on that subject," Roberts said in response to a student question during a forum at Canisius College in his hometown of Buffalo.
Justice Samuel Alito said last week that he doesn't plan to attend the next State of the Union because the president's annual speech to Congress has become awkward for the justices, who are expected to show little emotion as they listen. Alito shook his head in disagreement and mouthed the words "not true" during the last one, when President Barack Obama rebuked the court for a decision in a campaign finance case.
"Some of my colleagues made the decision that they don't want to go, period," Roberts said at the forum, "and I think that's something that's up to each individual member of the court."
In March, two months after the Obama's first State of the Union address, Roberts said he wasn't sure why justices attend an event that has "degenerated into a political pep rally," but on Tuesday, he said it "wouldn't be fruitful" to revisit the topic.
Roberts, a Republican nominee who joined the court in 2005, spoke as part of the Jesuit college's "Frank G. Raichle Lecture Series on Law in American Society" forum, spending most of his time responding to submitted and live questions from an audience of about 1,350 students, lawyers and local judges. Roberts was born in Buffalo in 1955 and moved to Indiana as a child.
He politely declined to answer any question that waded into territory the Supreme Court might find itself in, such as the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays, which is being heard in lower courts.
Two weeks into the high court's new term, Roberts said the justices already miss John Paul Stevens, who retired. But the justice who took his place, Elena Kagan, has "hit the ground running and is already contributing in a very positive way to our deliberations," he said.
When asked whether he agreed with Kagan's support of televising Supreme Court arguments, he said the court is slow to adopt technological change out of fear of doing something "that might injure the institution."
"I don't know what direction the court's going to go," he said.
One student's question about whether Roberts reads the legal jargon computer users must "agree" to before accessing certain websites (he usually doesn't) led him to share his own frustrations at the literature that accompanies medications.
"You open the thing and a folder falls out," he said to laughter. "The smallest type you can imagine and you unfold it like a map."
"It is a problem," he said, turning more serious, "because the legal system obviously is to blame for that."
Providing too much information defeats the purpose of providing any, he said, because no one ends up reading it.
"What the answer is," he said, "I don't know."