NEW YORK — When only 16 others in the past two centuries have held the job you currently fill, parallels with the past come easily.
Passing judgment on the chief domestic goals of a president of the other political party? Deflecting criticism from a bellicose Congress? Defending the Supreme Court’s most unpopular decisions when the public has soured on the institution?
All were in the air Friday night, when the 17th chief justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr., came to the Historical Society of the New York Courts to celebrate the 11th chief justice of the United States, Charles Evans Hughes, about whom it was once said: “He looked like God and talked like God.”
The current self-deprecating chief justice claimed neither distinction in a crisp, 16- minute presentation that evoked frequent laughter. And if you listened closely, it said a few things about Roberts as well: the way he views the responsibilities of the job and his low-key response to the controversies surrounding the court.
If Roberts was nominated as chief justice as an unknown outside legal circles, Hughes arrived as a “brand,” Roberts said. He had a career in law, politics and diplomacy and a white beard that gave the impression he had been sent from central casting.
President Theodore Roosevelt described him as “a bearded iceberg”; Hughes’s political rival William Randolph Hearst labeled him an “animated feather duster.”
He defeated Hearst to become governor of New York, where he developed a reputation as a crusader cleaning up Albany. When President William Howard Taft persuaded him to join the Supreme Court in 1910, he delayed the move to spend a few more months as governor.
He left the court six years later when the Republican Party drafted him at its convention to run against Woodrow Wilson. Hughes lost by 23 electoral votes.
In private practice, he argued cases before the Supreme Court 25 times before President Warren G. Harding persuaded him to be secretary of state. And in 1930, President Herbert Hoover nominated him to return to the court as chief justice.
Hughes, who was 86 when he died in 1948, was so iconic, Roberts said, that a letter bearing only a sketch of Hughes and the address “Washington, DC” was delivered, “no questions asked.”
Hughes was the presiding chief justice when the Supreme Court in 1935 moved from its home in the basement of the Capitol to what Roberts called “our current majestic place of work” across the street.
But, more important, Roberts said, Hughes was leading the court during the greatest threat to its independence: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s plan to add enough friendly justices to gain control of the court, which had been striking down Roosevelt’s programs designed to lift the country out of the Great Depression.
“It fell to Hughes to guide a very unpopular Supreme Court through that high-noon showdown against America’s most popular president since George Washington,” Roberts said.
With the charismatic FDR in 1937 exhorting the public about the need for changing the court, some urged Hughes to respond in the same way, Roberts said. “But Hughes appreciated that that would be sort of fighting the battle on the enemy’s turf,” the chief justice said.
Instead, Roberts explained, Hughes wrote a letter to the Senate documenting the court’s work and detailing how adding justices would only make it harder. He worked “under the radar,” Roberts said, to allow time for Congress to realize the harm that could come from the momentous change Roosevelt was proposing.
“How can that be?” Roberts wondered. The Supreme Court was “the most unpopular institution in the country, that, as far as anyone knows, has been prolonging the Great Depression.”
Roosevelt said that “the people are with me,” Roberts continued. “Well, it certainly wasn’t the case that the people were with the court. But, I think they were with the Constitution.”
Roberts believes it was Hughes’s actions, not Justice Owen Roberts’s change of heart on one case — the “switch in time that saved nine” — that led FDR ultimately to withdraw his plan.
The Supreme Court was different back then, Roberts said, populated by politicians and others who had made a public name for themselves. Now, all but one justice is a former judge who rose through the ranks. When someone such as he or Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. is nominated, Roberts said, the first question from the press is “Who is he?”
The court’s decisions — on same-sex marriage, on upholding President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — land with as great an effect as those of previous courts. But polls regularly show that Americans struggle to name a single justice. They are much more likely to be able to recall the judges on “American Idol.”
If Roberts comes without Hughes’s reputation, the current chief justice seems determined to replicate his predecessor’s style of working. Roberts does not do interviews, and he gives fewer public speeches than his colleagues.
He does not respond to criticism — from the right, for his votes in favor of the Affordable Care Act, or from the left, for votes that critics said undermined the Voting Rights Act and campaign finance restrictions.
His senior colleagues mix it up more. Antonin Scalia tells liberals who still ask about Bush v. Gore to “get over it.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s blunt comments in favor of abortion rights and same-sex marriage outrage conservative critics.
Roberts takes a self-deprecating tack, and he avoids controversial statements. Robert A. Katzmann, chief judge of the federal appeals court in New York, speculated in a conversation following Roberts’s presentation that the chief justice had a future in stand-up if he tires of being the nation’s top judicial officer.
“I find that I’m regarded as a lot funnier now that I’m chief justice,” Roberts demurred.
He prefers talking history rather than explaining his own court’s decisions or its future.
Katzmann noted that Roberts had just completed 10 years as chief justice and wondered whether he had thought about what the next decade would be like.
Naturally, Roberts declined the bait.
“I think about the cases scheduled for the next sitting, the Monday after Thanksgiving,” he replied.