Roberts Speech Lauds 'Dispassionate' Judiciary

In Depth

In a speech on Feb. 25, 2005, Supreme Court nominee John Roberts explained to Wake Forest University law students and alumni that being a judge was harder than he initially thought. Roberts also said he believes judicial decisions should be the product of "dispassionate thinking." Alex Chadwick talks to Los Angeles Times reporter Maura Reynolds about the videotaped address, and what it may reveal about Roberts as his confirmation battle nears.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Supreme Court nominee Judge John Roberts--the National Archives today releases 500 more pages of legal documents from his time working for the Reagan administration. The White House continues to say it will withhold tens of thousands of more pages from when Judge Roberts later worked in the administration of the first President Bush. Democrats and Republicans are both getting ready for the confirmation hearings now about three weeks away. Any clues about Judge Roberts' judicial beliefs are highly sought after. That's why yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times is so interesting. Congressional reporter Maura Reynolds wrote about a speech from Judge Roberts in February. These were apparently his last unguarded remarks, unguarded in the sense he was not at the time being considered for a higher appointment. Here's some of what he said about his experience on the federal appeals bench, where he'd been a judge and a novice one for about two years. He's talking here about how difficult he finds it to make a ruling.

(Soundbite of tape)

Judge JOHN ROBERTS (Court of Appeals, Washington, DC): I kind of thought that in most of the cases that would be pretty obvious, be pretty clear that this person should lose, this person should win. I found that I've had to spend far more time than I thought I would just getting to that first step about what the right answer should be.

CHADWICK: Los Angeles Times reporter Maura Reynolds joins us now.

Maura, we have exclusive broadcast of this tape. Thank you very much for this. This is a speech that the judge gave at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. A little hard to understand--you can tell it was shot from a video camera maybe in the crowd. What he's saying is, being a judge turns out to be a harder job than he'd expected.

Ms. MAURA REYNOLDS (Los Angeles Times): Yes, and that gets right to the point of the debate between Republicans and Democrats over Judge Roberts. Many Republicans would like to appoint a very rigid conservative to the court, someone they know will always vote their way, like Justice Scalia or Justice Thomas. Liberals would like to think that while they can't influence the political leanings of the president--they know he's going to appoint a conservative--they would like him to pick somebody who would be deliberative and who would look at the facts of the case and who might just be a swing vote, the way Justice O'Connor has been.

CHADWICK: And from this speech, I think one might read this to say that he looks more like a swing vote than perhaps people had expected. Let's listen to another tape clip. In this, Judge Roberts is describing how a judge's view of a case changes throughout the judicial process. Here he is.

(Soundbite of tape)

Judge ROBERTS: The decisional process is very fluid. It is not at all unusual, in my own experience, to have one view of the case when you finish reading the briefs, a different view of the case when you sit down and you debate it with your law clerk, another view of the case after all the arguments, and you go back again to a different view after the conference. And then as you go through the writing process you pick out if these are the original view, the third view, the second view. Each stage, you hope, gets you closer and closer to a correct view, but the point is that you don't lock yourself in at any stage in the process.

CHADWICK: So what he's saying here, the decisional process is very fluid and you keep changing your mind. Tell us about the circumstances of this speech. Who is Judge Roberts speaking to here and how is he speaking? This just spontaneous, off-the-cuff?

Ms. REYNOLDS: Well, he's speaking from notes. And it's meant to be a kind of primer for law students about how to deal with judges. And he was explaining the transition from becoming a lawyer and a very successful one, like himself, who argued many times before the Supreme Court, to being a judge and how your perspective changes when you make that switch.

CHADWICK: The Senate Judiciary Committee has a copy of this tape. So I guess the senators who are going to be questioning him are going to hear this and consider this. But it's hard to get a copy of this tape otherwise. You have an exclusive hold on it.

Ms. REYNOLDS: I believe that the committee is going to be making copies available for viewing in their committee rooms to other reporters, but no, it's not widely distributed.

CHADWICK: Los Angeles Times congressional reporter Maura Reynolds with a tape from Judge John Roberts' speech at Wake Forest University in North Carolina earlier this year.

Maura Reynolds, thank you.

Ms. REYNOLDS: You're welcome.

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