Slate's Jurisprudence: Impact of Roberts' Speech

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Alex Chadwick talks to Slate legal analyst Dahlia Lithwick for an analysis of the speech Judge John Roberts gave in February. Roberts talked about how difficult it is to make the transition from lawyer to judge, and shared some of the lessons he learned as a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And one more on this. Earlier, I spoke with Slate's legal analyst, Dahlia Lithwick, about this speech from Judge Roberts.

DAHLIA LITHWICK reporting:

To the extent that there's a fear that John Roberts is a guy who comes into every case with his mind made up and his own ideology, you know, ready to foist it on to whatever the facts are, I think that this belies that image of him. I think he looks--more than anyone else, he looks like Anthony Kennedy, the justice who is ridiculed widely by both sides sometimes as the great agonizer, someone who really goes back and forth and back and forth and uses sort of his clerks and the process of conferring with other judges to make up his mind. And if anything, Roberts sort of admits to that, admits that he's a deliberator and an agonizer, which I think probably makes folks who worry about a real ideologue with an agenda feel a little better about the prospect of a Justice Roberts on the court.

CHADWICK: How about the people who are hoping for an ideologue?

LITHWICK: They're probably a little worried. I think, to some degree, it's worth recognizing that Roberts is a very smart, savvy man and he certainly wasn't going to answer this question by saying, you know, `Judging is easy and I always come into every, you know, case with my mind made up and don't listen to the facts.' So I think we need to take it with a grain of salt. This is a man who knew and has known for years that he was a contender for the Supreme Court. So I don't know how much you can read into this, but I think it's probably somewhat scary for the very, very far right folks who feel that again and again, they want to hear Roberts say, `Affirmative action is just wrong, abortion is just wrong, and that's what I'm going to do when I get on the court, I'm going to reverse Roe.' He's not going to say that, but I think not hearing that must make some folks on the far right quite nervous.

CHADWICK: It's just the circumstances of this speech that seem revealing to me. I mean, here he is speaking to a group of law students at a university, and speaking apparently informally. There's a sense in listening to this that you're hearing what he actually thinks.

LITHWICK: And I do think that this absolutely conforms with the picture that we have of Judge Roberts, which is someone who is very modest, quite funny, very, very humble, but yet very confident and someone who really does, I think, at the end of the day respect the process, respect the great unfurling legal process and believes that this is the way to get to the truth. And he's not a crusader. There's a part of the speech that's very interesting where he talks a lot about collegiality, about respect for other justices, about how important it is not to be strident and certain of yourself. I think that this is a man who really sort of consistently through his life feels that as a lawyer and as a judge you just catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Dahlia Lithwick. She writes for the online magazine Slate and is a regular guest here on DAY TO DAY.

Dahlia, thank you again.

LITHWICK: Always a pleasure.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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