The Honorable John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the United States, participated Wednesday in a 45-minute conversation with Belmont Law Dean Alberto Gonzales in Belmont’s Baskin Center. Judge Gonzales, the former U.S. Attorney General, led a discussion with the Chief Justice in front of an audience of Belmont Law students, invited dignitaries and local judges.
Roberts’ appearance at Belmont was slightly delayed due to the cancellation of an early morning flight following his attendance at last night’s State of the Union address. “First let me apologize for the rescheduling,” he noted in his opening remarks. “I heard the two most dreaded words for any traveler this morning: maintenance issues… This is not the first time that Judge Gonzales has interviewed me. The first time was about 14 years ago as the first step in the process that led to my current job. So, in my experience, nothing but good things happen when you’re interviewed by Judge Gonzales.”
Roberts’ wry humor permeated the event as he and Gonzales engaged in a conversation touching on life inside the Supreme Court as well as Constitutional law and the legal practice in general. Questions for the discussion were submitted by Belmont Law students and faculty. The interview opened with a question about what it is like to be the Chief Justice of the United States.
“To be perfectly serious, I love the work. I love that the work I am doing is in service to a country that I love. I’m delighted that I have such wonderful colleagues to do it with, and I get to do it as long as I want. What’s not to like?,” he said. “I will say though, and I think it’s important for the law students to appreciate, it obviously is a great responsibility, and I feel very blessed to have it. But there have been 17 Chief Justices, and I would be very surprised if the people in here could name them… My point is that you’re not guaranteed to play a significant role in the history of the country, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if you don’t.”
When writing court opinions, Roberts spoke about his own experience clerking for former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who challenged his clerks to offer oral presentations on cases rather than written memos. The process, Roberts believes, is helpful for organizing thoughts and analyzing all the aspects of a case. Now, when offering an opinion for the Court, he has one primary audience in mind: “My sisters. I have three sisters who are not lawyers. They are intelligent laypeople who aren’t fixated on what’s going on in Washington or in the legal world. I really hope that whatever area of law [a written opinion is] in, that somebody who is not a lawyer could pick it up, read it and understand what it’s about.”
Roberts also discussed his belief that labels of conservative and liberal shouldn’t be used in relation to the Court. “Categories aren’t that significant in a particular case. In many areas of the law, the most pro-criminal-defendant justice was Justice [Antonin] Scalia. His way of analyzing some of the protections in the Bill of Rights led him to believe that criminal defendants had a lot more rights, and more categorical rights, than many of his colleagues thought. You can go down the line with that. I’m probably the most aggressive defender of the First Amendment. Most people might think that doesn’t quite fit with my jurisprudence in other areas… People need to know that we’re not doing politics. We’re doing something different. We’re applying the law.”
Gonzales, who has served as dean of Belmont Law since 2014, said, “We are grateful for the Chief Justice’s visit. He was inspirational and informative in his remarks. Our students truly had a remarkable front row seat to American legal history.”
Lexie Ward, a 2016 Belmont music business alumna (B.B.A.), is scheduled to complete her Belmont Law degree in May and will be serving as an assistant attorney general for the State of Tennessee this fall. She said, “Today’s conversation was a wonderful testament to the extraordinary opportunities Belmont Law offers to its students. Today, we were able to learn from two of our country’s most remarkable attorneys who have clearly served this country tirelessly. Their inspirational careers certainly serve as a wonderful reminder of the power of hard work and dedication.”
Third year law student John M Jefferson Jr., who hopes to pursue State Government and Business Law, noted that he was impressed by the Chief Justice’s clarity of thought and the recognition of how the Court must keep up with technology, particularly around one case involving the Fourth Amendment as related to the search of cell phones. Jefferson added, “Chief Justice Roberts encouraged us to take a moment and remember why we came to law school. Once we remember our motivations, we should make sure our first few steps out of law school align with those long term goals and passions. This advice will keep me focused on making a difference in the lives of Tennesseans through good governance in all areas of law.”
Chief Justice Roberts has served as the Chief Justice of the United States since 2005. He received an A.B. from Harvard College in 1976 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1979. He served as a law clerk for Judge Henry J. Friendly of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1979–1980 and as a law clerk for then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist of the Supreme Court of the United States during the 1980 Term.
Chief Justice Roberts’ visit marks the second time a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice appeared at Belmont Law, following Justice Samuel Alito’s address at the inaugural Belmont Law commencement in 2014.