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Supreme Court nomination process troubles chief justice

LOUISVILLE — U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts raised "some objections" to how the Senate confirmation process for Supreme Court nominees has evolved, telling an audience Saturday that would-be justices should not divulge how they would rule in particular cases.

"I think it would be good if the Senate appreciated that to a greater extent," Roberts said during an appearance at the University of Louisville, where he answered questions from a panel of scholars.

Several hundred attended the event at a school gymnasium as part of the McConnell Center's lecture series. Roberts was introduced by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Louisville, a U of L graduate.

During the hourlong event, Roberts said it's "surprisingly easy" to put aside his personal views when hearing cases. He revealed fighting temptation to assign himself to write the court's most interesting opinions. And he bemoaned how little civics is taught in the nation's high schools.

The chief justice also displayed a quick wit when student panelist Kirk Laughlin started a two-pronged question by asking whether Roberts would write a law school recommendation for him.

"Depends how good your second question is," Roberts said, drawing laughter and applause.

Laughlin then asked Roberts if he thought the confirmation process for justices had become too political.

Roberts replied, "I do have some objections to how it's developed," then added it "worked out pretty well" for him when he joined the Supreme Court in 2005.

Roberts said it's not surprising the Senate confirmation process is tinged with politics but said it takes longer than seems necessary. He said that a more polarized political process, reflected in Congress, presents "the danger that that might gravitate to the judicial branch, where it has no place."

He then said firmly that Supreme Court nominees, when appearing before senators, cannot offer predictions on how they would decide particular cases.

"I think that's a vital part of the judicial oath when you take it," Roberts said. "You have to say you're going to decide on the merits of the case, not on the basis of future promises."

Roberts was not asked whether he thinks there will be any retirements on the high court any time soon.

On another topic, Roberts cited flag burning as an example of how he could put aside personal feelings. Roberts said that he considers the action a "horrible thing" and that when he thinks about people who sacrificed for what the flag represents, "it gets your blood boiling."

"But I understand the need to put that aside and appreciate that that activity is protected as the Supreme Court has held by the First Amendment," he said.

Roberts offered a glimpse into the court's inner workings when asked how he doles out assignments among his fellow justices to write majority opinions when he's on the prevailing side.

That perk is "probably the only reason that they're nice to me," he joked.

Roberts said he tries to evenly distribute big cases and less interesting ones among justices.

"You don't want somebody at the end of the year to say, 'I didn't get any of the big cases,'" he said.

He also tries to give his colleagues a variety of cases, he said.

"The hard part, by the way, is dealing with myself," he said. "There's a great temptation where I want to take all the interesting cases; I want to take all the fun ones."

When asked what cases should garner more public attention, Roberts cited bankruptcy and arbitration while adding that "much of what we do is not socially charged."

"These days, people might be interested in what we're saying about bankruptcy law," he said. "Far more disputes are settled through arbitration than they are in court."