According to Rice University president David Leebron, the legal career of Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts really took off in law school, when the jurist was named managing editor of the Harvard Law Review by the law review's president — one David Leebron.
As the final speaker of Rice's Centennial Lecture Series, Roberts got a standing ovation and a laugh from the crowd in Tudor Fieldhouse as he reiterated Leebron's opening statement that he could not comment on any issues currently before the court, issues that could potentially come before the court or on any past court decisions, "so my remarks will be brief."
"Even the 5-4 ones are not as controversial as you might think," Roberts said.
In an informal question and answer session, Roberts gave advice on how students should decide whether law school and the legal profession is right for them, lamented his status as an administrator of a government department (a role he described himself as "not very good at") and shared what he learned from former chief justice William Rehnquist, for whom he clerked.
Roberts' answers were entertaining and engaging. He told a number of stories and anecdotes that got a laugh from the crowd, but his description of the role of the court and how it makes decisions seemed designed to make his job sound boring and anodyne, in stark contrast to the divisive and politically heightened image of the Roberts court and its several high-profile split decisions.
"Even the 5-4 ones are not as controversial as you might think. Among the 5-4 decisions we had last year was one asking if you overstate the basis of a sale of a capital asset by reducing the amount of income, is your criminal prosecution of that subject to a three-year statute of limitation or a six-year statute of limitations?
"And that was a knock-down, drag-out fight," Roberts said after noting that two-thirds of Supreme Court decisions have an quorum of seven or more of the justices. "The way to get to broader agreements is with narrower decisions."
Roberts described the Supreme Court as designed to be unpopular by the framers, but he also noted that the court still has a higher approval rating than either Congress or the executive branch.
"I think we're low because people's view of government is low," Roberts said. Though he said that his only goal for his legacy as chief justice is "to be known as a good judge," he also challenged the view of the court as a partisan body.
"I don't think it's a very accurate way to view the court," Roberts said. "It's importing from the political branches categories that don't quite make any sense. First of all, in most of our work you can't really identify a conservative or a liberal point of view.
"If we have a very difficult tax case, nobody can say, 'You're a liberal if you want to allow the deduction by the estate but you're a conservative if you want to require the debit.' It just doesn't make any sense. Most of our work concerns cases like that."