TROY, N.Y. – With Neil Gorsuch sworn-in this week after a difficult U.S. Supreme Court confirmation, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said Tuesday the now common political conflict accompanying the process unfairly taints nominees who survive to join the court.
Roberts told students and faculty at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) that the public likely gets the wrong idea about the political stances of new judges because of the partisan warfare that has accompanied recent nominations to the high court.
“It is very difficult, I think, for a member of the public to look at what goes on in the confirmation hearings these days, which is a very sharp conflict in political terms between Democrats and Republicans, and not think that the person who comes out of that process must similarly share that same sort of partisan view of public issues and public life,” Roberts said.
Senate Republicans were forced to ease their chamber’s voting rules to confirm President Donald Trump’s choice of Gorsuch after it became clear that his supporters could not muster the 60 votes normally necessary to approve his nomination because of Democratic opposition.
The last nominee of Democratic President Barack Obama, Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, never got to a confirmation vote in 2016 as Senate Republicans said the pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court should be left to the president selected in the November 2016 election.
But once nominees are sworn in, they join a court where the judges “do not do our business in a partisan, ideological manner,” Roberts said.
“The new justice is not a Republican and not a Democrat,” the chief justice said. “He is a member of the Supreme Court. But it is hard for people to understand when they see the process that leads up to it.”
Answering questions posed by Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the science and engineering college near Albany, Roberts said it would be unworkable, even if they were inclined, for justices to wage on-going partisan battles with their colleagues and still produce coherent rulings based on the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and statutes.
Roberts said it is not inconceivable that he might serve for the next 25 years with Gorsuch and many of his other colleagues.
“You realize that you can’t have knock-down, drag-out fights over a big case, because there was a big case last year, and there will be a big case next year,” Roberts said. “If that’s the same sort of thing for 25 years, that makes life pretty unbearable. … It’s kind of like a marriage. You hope it goes on for a long time and you can’t sort of have every fight be a huge fight.”
Roberts said he rarely speaks at colleges that are not law schools. Asked by a student why he gravitated toward a career in the law, Roberts replied, “Because it was clear that there were no jobs for historians. That’s what I wanted to be.”
In recognition of RPI’s academic specialties, the chief justice presented a light-hearted survey before taking questions from Jackson on the backgrounds of all the previous chief justices and their connections with engineering and the sciences. “As it turns out, there are very few,” he joked.
Jackson, a former chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Roberts have served together on the board of trustees of the Smithsonian Institution since Roberts’ 2005 appointment to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s chief justice is the chancellor of the board.