Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. spoke to a judicial conference at the University of Kentucky on Wednesday without addressing any controversies headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, or the court’s unprecedented yearlong vacancy left by the death of his colleague, Antonin Scalia, or the man he swore in as president two weeks ago, Donald Trump.
Instead, Roberts offered his audience an inside glimpse at the nation’s highest court and spoke of the 11 Kentuckians who have served on the court so far, including the highly respected John Marshall Harlan and Louis Brandeis, and Fred Vinson, who served in succession as a congressman, President Truman’s treasury secretary and chief justice.
Harlan brought honor to his home state by casting the sole dissenting vote in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court’s 1896 decision that legalized racial segregation by establishing the doctrine of “separate but equal,” Roberts said. The court’s official record of the case, with a single opposing check next to Harlan’s name, is now held by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington.
Roberts, 61, spoke as part of the John G. Heyburn II Initiative and UK College of Law’s first judicial conference and speaker series. Heyburn, who died in 2015, was a federal district judge in Louisville most famous for striking down Kentucky’s ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld Heyburn in June 2015 with its historic ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Roberts dissented from the majority in that decision.
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Roberts was interviewed on stage Wednesday by James Duff, director of the U.S. Administrative Office of the Courts. Duff is a UK graduate who played for the 1971-72 Wildcats men’s basketball team. The men went together to Rupp Arena on Tuesday night to watch the Wildcats defeat Georgia.
Earlier that evening, Roberts met Coach John Calipari and watched on the television in the coach’s office as Trump named federal appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court’s open seat.
Calipari later tweeted: “He invited me to the Supreme Court to come to his office. What are the chances I take him up on that? (High.)”
In his interview with Duff, Roberts said that part of his job as chief justice involves maintaining a level of geniality at the court. Before they take their seats at the bench to hear oral arguments, the justices all make eye contact and shake hands with each other, he said. They regularly have lunch as a group, with no court-related conversation allowed. And when it’s necessary, he said, he urges them to remove scathing attacks on each other from their opinions.
“As you know, some of those harsh things see the light of day. But you should see the ones that didn’t,” Roberts said. “That’s when you have to tell one of your colleagues, ‘I understand that you think this issue is important, I understand that you think this is wrong, but you shouldn’t use this particular adjective.’”
“It is critically important,” he said. “When you think about it, you pick nine people at random, you throw them all together and say that for the next 20 years, you’re going to decide some of the most important issues ever to face the country. You immediately realize that you have got to find a way to get along, or else it’s going to be a long 20 years.”