By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007
CHICAGO, Feb. 1 -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. defended the Supreme Court's workload and explained his view of the justices' essential but limited roles in a speech Thursday, his first trip "back home to the Midwest" since his elevation to the court.
Roberts, Indiana-born and Harvard-trained, spent the day at Northwestern University School of Law attending classes, speaking with students and faculty and giving a formal address that brought out the history teacher he once thought he might be.
He mentioned that the first chief justice, John Jay, convened the Supreme Court 217 years ago and then adjourned, because it had no cases to hear.
As it was in Jay's day, Roberts said, it remains: "The Supreme Court has only limited control over the size of its docket, and the court's docket rises and falls with the actions of Congress, the executive branch and the lower courts."
The court's dwindling caseload has been a topic of controversy, as the number of cases it has taken is about half what it was 20 years ago. Roberts said during confirmation hearings in 2005 that he thought the justices should be taking more cases.
"I regarded this as a matter of great concern when I was a practicing lawyer, somewhat less significant when I became a Court of Appeals judge," Roberts said. And now that he has seen it from the high court's viewpoint, he says that at times, there just are not that many cases that merit the court's review.
"The court is still limited to choosing from the petitions filed," he said, and not relaxing standards just to have more cases.
He said there are several reasons for the shrinking docket, most notably the absence of bold initiatives from Congress.
"The court's docket tends to increase when there is major legislation enacted, particularly if the legislation is complex and the stakes are high and it affects a broad segment of the population," Roberts said. "The relative lack of major legislation in recent years, I think, can account to some extent to the corresponding decline in the court's docket."
He also said technology plays a role, because it is easier than ever for lawyers and judges to know the rulings of courts around the country, and that because "judges of all varieties focus more on statutory language" it tends to "narrow the range of disagreements in the courts" that the Supreme Court is often called upon to settle.
"The court's docket ebbs and flows unpredictably," he said, and this year is a good example. Although the court is on track to hear about 80 cases, the same number as it has in recent years, it canceled one day of arguments in December because there was nothing to hear. But a rush of grants after the first of the year means justices will hear more cases in April than it had meant to.
Roberts also returned to a familiar theme: his penchant for narrowly decided cases that are signed by as many members of the court as possible.
"Yes, we might be able to furnish clearer guidance with more sweeping opinions, but our job is to decide cases, not promulgate comprehensive rules," Roberts said. "And I think we are more apt to err when we go beyond what is necessary to decide the case before us."
He said the "distinctive voices" of the justices are more valuable in the private conferences in which cases are decided, rather than in the opinions the court issues.