For High School Students, Some Justice

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

One of the perks of being a student in the Washington region is that the subjects you study are always at hand. The White House is a Metro ride away, the neighbor down the street might be a leader in Congress, battlegrounds and historical sites and ancient documents of democracy abound.

Or, as government classes at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda found out yesterday, if you're studying the Supreme Court, maybe the chief justice of the United States will stop by.

John G. Roberts Jr. spent about an hour yesterday answering questions from government teacher Robert Mathis and a series of polite students in T-shirts and flip-flops.

The second-youngest chief justice was as self-deprecating as the students were casual, presenting himself as "just one vote" among nine, part of a "passive" court that simply decides the cases that come its way.

"I don't have an agenda," Roberts told the students. "If I did, it wouldn't be something I could implement."

Mathis and the other teachers no doubt later reminded students that Roberts, 53, is a bit more powerful than he lets on. The court he heads accepts only a tiny fraction of the cases offered, and last year alone accepted ones that allowed the more conservative justices to make bold strides in changing the court's jurisprudence concerning the use of race in school assignments, campaign finance reform and restrictions on abortion.

This year, it is considering the rights of terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, whether lethal injection violates the Constitution and, for the first time in 70 years, whether the Second Amendment prohibits restrictive gun-control laws.

Roberts acknowledged that such issues have hindered his desire that the court decide cases narrowly in hopes of achieving unanimous or 8 to 1 decisions.

"We haven't made a lot of progress moving beyond fairly sharp divisions" on the court, he said.

"I try to keep an eye on the interpersonal relationships" of the justices, he said, hoping that those who oppose one other on an issue will find mutual ground on another. And even though he decides who writes the opinion when he is in the majority, Roberts said, "I can't take all the good ones for myself, and I have to take my share of the dogs."

Roberts returned often to the theme of an independent judiciary, saying judges must have leeway to make unpopular decisions based on the dictates of the law and Constitution. He said that having a "judicial philosophy" is not as important as deciding individual cases based on the law, but said judges should never think they hold the solutions to political problems.

"We're removed from politics. People don't vote for us. It's our job sometimes to do things that are unpopular."

Mathis was unsuccessful in getting Roberts to talk about how much the justices discuss the presidential election, and he declined to answer a student's question about the most important case the court has decided since he joined in September 2005.

Asked by a student how to protect civil liberties during wartime, an issue continually before the justices during the Bush administration, Roberts talked about the Constitution being the same during war and peace but never moved much beyond saying, "It's a great challenge."

Roberts's visit to the school, a favor for a friend, was supposed to be unpublicized: "3rd period assembly -- discussion of Supreme Court" was the bland description on the school Web site. But there are too many lawyers among the well-to-do parents of the Montgomery County school, who knew how unusual it was when their kids came home to say the chief justice was coming.

The respectful, if sometimes drowsy, students got a protocol lesson from an administrator before Roberts arrived: caps off, no matter the condition of your hair. Rise and remain standing until Roberts takes his seat on stage. And cellphones will be confiscated on sight.

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