Supreme Court's Roberts to speak at BYU today

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 23 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

PROVO — The chief justice of an increasingly divided and conservative U.S. Supreme Court will speak today at Brigham Young University, three weeks into a new court term.

Chief Justice John Roberts, 52, will speak at a University Forum assembly at 11:05 a.m. in the Marriott Center. The speech is free and open to the public and will be carried live on television, radio and the Internet. Roberts will take questions from the audience after his speech.

In its new term, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases on major issues ranging from gun control and voting rights to the death penalty and Guantanamo detainees.

Roberts was 50 when President Bush nominated him as chief justice, the youngest chief since 1801, when John Marshall was sworn in at age 45. Roberts immediately became both the leader of the Supreme Court and its youngest member, and he set the ambitious goal of creating more harmony among the nine justices.

"Politics (in America) are closely divided," Roberts told The Atlantic magazine in a January 2007 article. "The same with Congress. There ought to be some sense of some stability, if the government is not going to polarize completely. It's a high priority to keep any kind of partisan divide out of the judiciary as well."

The article's secondary headline said, "Chief Justice John Roberts says that if the Supreme Court is to maintain legitimacy, its justices must start acting more like colleagues and less like prima donnas."

At first, it seemed to work. In 2005-06, Roberts' first term, the court ran off more consecutive unanimous opinions than any senior court watcher could remember.

But his second term ended last spring with more 5-4 opinions than any term had produced in a generation, and some justices have leveled strong attacks on each other in writing those opinions.

"It is striking how conservative the court is now," the New York Times said on Sept. 30. "The court's hyper-partisan approach to the law is unhealthy."

Time magazine was even more descriptive on Oct. 11: "The warring factions of the Roberts Court — and their pocked and smoking battlefields — have made his talk of self-effacing harmony seem obsolete. ... Bombast, rhetorical excess and dueling opinions are thick as Pompeian ash."

Roberts is known as a bright, likable man. He argued a remarkable 39 cases before the Supreme Court when he was an attorney. In her book "Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court," ABC reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg quoted one person saying Roberts was the best Supreme Court advocate of his generation.

As a federal judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Roberts found a harmony he hoped to replicate. He wrote 49 opinions while on that court. Only two were not unanimous, and he dissented from other judges' opinions only three times, according to www.oyez.org.

The current disharmony apparently is rooted in the shift that has taken place since President Bush put Roberts and Samuel Alito on the court within four months of each other. Both proved to be the judicial conservatives Bush long had promised he would deliver. The result is a court with four conservatives — Roberts, Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, all Catholics — and four liberals — John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ronald Reagan intended the ninth justice, Anthony Kennedy, to be a conservative when nominated in 1988, but Kennedy's record instead often angered conservatives. In the last court term, however, he repeatedly sided with the conservatives, alarming liberals on and off the court. The swing to the right, analysts say, has led to the written jousting among justices.

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