Supreme Court justices are known for serious opinions and grilling attorneys during oral arguments. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is no different. But the Harvard-educated former corporate lawyer also appears to have a humorous side.
During a moderated discussion at a judicial conference Friday, Roberts delivered a number of one-liners, quips, jokes and humorous anecdotes worthy of President Reagan, the Joker-in-Chief.
I’m not sure Roberts’ quips were particularly revealing about the chief justice’s character — but his jokes did bring down the house. (A word of caution: The audience was full of judges and members of Washington’s legal community, so the stand-up comedian bar is fairly low.)
In any case, so the chief jokester’s humor is not lost to posterity, here are some excerpts:
●“Well, I suppose it depends on who gets to pick them” – In response to a question about whether he supported the idea of boosting the number of justices from 9 to 19. (He does not support it).
●“Those who are responsible for our budget do a great job. The ones who give us money are among the best legislators since Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and you can quote me on that.” – Concerned about funding cuts, Roberts didn’t hesitate to lavish praise on lawmakers who oversee the judiciary’s budget.
●“You have to mix in a lot of different things. It’s fun. I get a little graph and try to work it out. I had it all worked out perfectly and looked and realized one of my colleagues had voted the other way. I went and asked him if he could change” his vote. – Roberts said he carefully assigns cases to ensure justices write a variety of opinions.
●“It looked as if no one had opened the drawer since he had been on the court. There were old yellow papers and little nubs for ink dipping pens from the inkwell ... I gave those to David Souter and he was grateful.” — The chief justice’s answer to a question about the court’s traditions, including one that involves providing quill pens to lawyers at oral arguments.
He was also describing a drawer in his desk, which had belonged to Harlan Fiske Stone, chief justice from 1941 to 1946. Souter, who retired as a justice in 2009, is a well-known Luddite who reportedly used a fountain pen and professed not to use e-mail or a cell phone. This comment drew particularly strong applause and laughter from the legal audience.
●“I wasn’t picked for the job because I had great management or admin abilities.” – The chief justice on the administrative burdens of his job.
●“Once you get over joy of having the title of chancellor, it turns out it is a good bit of very serious work and quite interesting and quite important work.” — Among his many duties, Roberts is also chancellor of the Smithsonian.
●“My background in school was history and I always enjoyed it. I didn’t know much about my predecessors. I think if any of senators wanted to embarrass me during my confirmation hearings they would have asked me to name them.” – Roberts conceding he was not an authority on the court’s history. He said he has since studied up on the subject.
●“The odd historical quirk that the chief justice only gets one vote.” – What he would change about the court.
●“Whatever tweeting is.” — Roberts said he warned clerks to not mention work on social media platforms but didn’t seem to really undestand how they worked.
●“We are not terribly interested in how Hegelian philosophy or dialectic helps explains evidence rule 508.” —The differences between legal academics and those who practice in the real-world.
●When asked if he wished he could respond to criticism in public, Roberts simply said, “No,” and turned his head for the next question.
●“Malta, for those of you who don't know, is an impregnable island fortress and it seemed like a good idea.” — The chief justice’s looming travel plans, just a day after issuing his controversial and criticized ruling that saved President Obama’s healthcare law.
●“It’s pretty easy. You are busy with other things. The last thing you want to do when you get home at the end of the day or wake up in the morning is read about your work. So, you just, I’m sure my colleagues do things differently, you try to avoid reading about it. [Former Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell was so strict about that, that he had his wife go through the paper before he looked at it — literally cut out articles that were about the court [so] he wouldn’t have to worry about reading it. It worked until he got some case dealing with athletic anti-trust issues, and she hadn’t gone through the sports page. He used to tell the story that he was very troubled to find an article about it.” – Why he doesn’t usually read newspapers reporting on the court.
Del on Twitter: @delwilber