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Roberts Touts Unanimity on Supreme Court

By MARK SHERMAN
The Associated Press
Friday, November 17, 2006; 5:56 PM

WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice John Roberts went on national television this week to offer his view that the Supreme Court produces stronger decisions by being cautious rather than bold.

Roberts, speaking to an ABC News reporter on a stage at the University of Miami, said rulings that are decided on a 9-0 or 8-1 basis leave behind fewer question marks.

"The more cautious approach, the approach that can get the most justices to sign onto it, is the preferred approach," Roberts said. "It also contributes, I think, to stability in the law."

Roberts has repeatedly said since his nomination to the court last year that he would prefer to avoid narrowly divided votes.

But unanimity, or anything close to it, has not been easy to achieve. Just hours before Roberts' appearance in Florida, he presided at a court session in Washington at which the first written opinion of the term was issued.

Rather than the consensus that often accompanies early decisions, the ruling to uphold the death penalty for a California defendant was 5-4, with the court's conservatives in the majority and its four liberal justices in dissent.

The close vote underscored the difficulty of keeping harmony in the contentious cases the justices face each term. In Roberts' first year as head of the court, he scored some early successes with unanimous opinions, including rulings on abortion and campaign finance.

Still, the justices ended the term in late June with a raft of divided rulings on key cases, including one that called into question interrogations of suspected terrorists and declared illegal the Bush administration's plan for military tribunals for some detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Congress has since endorsed the president's revised plans to interrogate and prosecute terror suspects.

Roberts did not mention the death penalty ruling in Florida, but he did explain why he describes his judicial philosophy as one of restraint and not activism.

Strong advocacy of political views belongs in the halls of Congress or at the White House and its agencies, he said. The nine Supreme Court justices and all other federal judges are given lifetime appointments to insulate them from such political pressures, he said.

"Not a single person voted for me. If you don't like what I do, it's kind of too bad," he said. "I'm not there to make judgments based on my personal policy positions."

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A Connecticut woman picked a frightening and potentially deadly way to strike back at friends and family members who, she felt, had slighted her. Barbara Joan March sent cookies and candy laced with rat poison to Supreme Court justices and top FBI and Pentagon officials.

Neither March's goodies nor her case made it to the Supreme Court, but retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recounted the April 2005 episode recently as part of a discussion about threats against judges. Her comments were reported in the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram.

March, of Bridgeport, Conn., was sentenced last month to 15 years in prison.

The 14 letters were intercepted by mail handlers who noticed the contents of crushed cookies and candy seeping through the envelopes. All mail sent to the court is screened, court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said.

The typewritten notes contained threatening statements about killing the recipients, but also warned that the treats were poisoned, making it unlikely anyone would have been harmed even if the letters had reached their targets, prosecutors told the federal judge who sentenced March.

The letters seemingly were mailed by acquaintances of March, leading prosecutors to conclude that she was motivated by misplaced anger toward the purported senders rather than a desire to harm the intended recipients.

An FBI investigation found that March sent all the letters, including some that she typed at a public library near her home.

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The Supreme Court is hyperconscious of color. If you want the court to take your case, your brief must have a white cover. Opposed? It's orange. Other briefs must be red, blue, green (dark or light, depending on your side) and cream. The government's filings are always gray.

So it is, as well, with the court's calendar. Days scheduled for the justices' conferences are green, court sessions without arguments are blue and argument sessions are red.

But sometimes, the court changes its mind, color coding notwithstanding. Even though the first Wednesday in December is stamped in red on the calendar, the justices have canceled their session for that day because they were short of cases.

It is not easy to cram a constitutional dispute into an open spot on the calendar. The turnaround time to get a case argued is nearly four months from the time justices agree to hear it. The process can be sped up, but the court does that only reluctantly because it places even more pressure on lawyers who are stepping into the legal world's most intimidating environment.

The court has a full slate of cases for its January argument calendar, helped by the legal holiday on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

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AP Legal Affairs Writer Curt Anderson contributed to this report.