LETTER FROM THE SUPREME COURT

New Justices Take the Podium, Putting Personalities on Display

When Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. addressed fellow members of the Federalist Society last week, his remarks showed that he may still be stung by his treatment in his confirmation hearings.
When Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. addressed fellow members of the Federalist Society last week, his remarks showed that he may still be stung by his treatment in his confirmation hearings. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)

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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006

The two newest Supreme Court justices took off the robes and took to the stump last week, providing glimpses of the fresh personalities that will reshape a court that had remained constant for more than a decade.

The settings could not have been more different. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was interviewed before a crowd of 3,000 last Monday night at the University of Miami, and his telegenic message of moderation was then broadcast to the nation on ABC's "Nightline."

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. spoke to his fellow members of the Federalist Society, a coalition of conservative lawyers and legal scholars who have gone from rebel outsiders to Washington insiders -- the group drew 1,500 people to its annual banquet and warranted appearances by administration leaders from Vice President Cheney on down.

Roberts's turn on the stage was the most complete, and it showed that his sure-footed performance in his confirmation hearings, where he left even senators opposed to his conservative philosophy aglow, was no fluke.

He has a politician's gift for appearing open while answering only the questions he wants to answer, along with an almost over-the-top humility about being, at 51, the youngest chief justice since John Marshall, and he offers a reassuring middle ground between those worried about threats to judicial independence and those alarmed by activist judges.

He provided a little something for everyone. For the feature pages, he had a cute explanation of how his jiggling son Jack almost stole the show with his hammy performance before the cameras when President Bush introduced Roberts and his family to the nation last year: "People think Jack was dancing. He was not dancing. He was being Spiderman. He was shooting the webs off."

He gave the scholars caught up in the debate about his affection for legal minimalism a bit more to chew on: "If you're going up a list of what virtues are important when you're deciding a Supreme Court opinion, issuing an opinion, deciding a case, I have to say that I think boldness is going to be closer to the bottom and not the top."

And he showed deference to those he called the "people across the street" in Congress, who have been chosen by "hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people."

"Not a single person has voted for me, and if we don't like what the people in Congress do, we can get rid of them, and if you don't like what I do, it's kind of too bad," Roberts told ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg, who conducted the interview at the Miami forum. "And that is, to me, an important constraint. It means that I'm not there to make a judgment based on my personal policy preferences or my political preferences."

But as important as what Robert said was how he said it. He went a bit overboard in the humility department: Yes, the rest of the justices call one another by their first names, but they call him "chief." But, he quickly added, "I think it's more a tribute to the office."

And Roberts said he still finds it a little hard to believe that the office is his, for as long as he wants it. When he passes the formal entrance to his office, he said, there's "a little brass plaque on the door that says 'The Chief Justice,' and I still kind of feel that I have to be a little quiet so I don't disturb him."

Dahlia Lithwick, the sharp-eyed legal affairs columnist for the online magazine Slate, called it Roberts's "whole sweet/funny/smart/humble thing" and wrote that the chief justice "sees that the press can be gamed to disseminate a view of judging and the judiciary, and the clarity and effectiveness of his message is indisputable."


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