Roberts declined to answer hot-button questions about Guantanamo Bay detainees, gay marriage, Roe v. Wade, religion and political candidates such as Mitt Romney and some aspects of privacy law. He said judicial ethics forbade him from doing so because related cases may come before the court in the near future and because judges avoid political debates.
But other questions led Roberts to criticize the use of international precedent by some justices and to reveal his belief that technology-related cases could be the most important area of law considered by the Supreme Court over the next quarter of a century.
Just 52 years old and the youngest chief justice since 1801, Roberts is expected to preside over the court throughout that time.
Emerging technologies can create new questions about old laws. For example, imaging technology exists that allows law enforcement officers to see through walls. "Is that an unlimited search and seizure?" Roberts asked.
"People tend to be focused on what are the hot issues right now," he added. "Those are not the issues I think 25 years from now will be the ones people will look back on and say were significant."
Roberts strongly asserted his belief that U.S. judges should not use precedents established by international courts.
"When we look at domestic precedent, it narrows the authority of a judge," he said. "When we look at international precedent, it expands the authority of a judge. As one judge said, 'It's like looking out over a crowd and picking out your friends.'"
International relations major Evan Crockett asked Roberts about moral principles and whether the Supreme Court plays a role in foreign policy.
"I don't make moral decisions," Roberts said. "I make legal decisions. Sometimes, and even often, those legal decisions are contrary to the judgment I would make were it my job to shape policy, which is often guided by moral principles.
"Our constitutional decisions do have ramifications on foreign policies. That's not part of our job description ... but we are tasked to decide cases that involve the Constitution and involve both the granting authority in the area of foreign affairs to the president in some instances and to the legislature and also limitations on that."
Roberts spent most of his speech outlining his conservative philosophy on the judiciary. "The framers did not contemplate that the judicial branch would change the Constitution with the prevailing tenor of the times," he said. It was that conservatism that led President Bush to nominate Roberts as chief justice two years ago.
Roberts invoked Ronald Reagan twice and Robert Bork once, then expressed admiration for Bork, a strong judicial conservative, during the question-and-answer session, pointing out that he was speaking on the 20th anniversary of the 58-42 vote in the U.S. Senate that rejected Reagan's nomination of Bork to the Supreme Court.
The chief justice also spoke at length about the intent of the framers of the Constitution and encouraged BYU students to read the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.
"The framers' great innovation, an independent judiciary with the final say on what the Constitution means in a manner that binds the government as well as the governed, has withstood the test of time," he said. "It is even being embraced by the mother country."
The Constitutional Reform Act of 2005 provided for a new Supreme Court of England and Wales, separate from Parliament.
"I'm sure that our founders would have been pleased to find out that the very ideals they fought Great Britain to secure are now being adopted in that country," Roberts said.
Roberts referred several times to a devotional talk given last month by BYU President Cecil Samuelson and his wife Sharon and the university's request that all incoming students this year read "The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution," by Linda Monk.
"As President Samuelson pointed out, the Constitution contains words we live by. He's quite right that for persons of faith, they are not the only words," Roberts said. "But for all Americans, the actual words of the Constitution are vitally important.
"I would therefore like to suggest you not only read about the Constitution, but that you read the Constitution itself. It is a short, but powerful document. It is the most enduring written constitution in history.
"In studying the history of the Constitution, I think you will come away with a profound respect for those who created our nation. With a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, they had mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor in the cause of independence. They then crafted the Constitution as the culmination of that pledge."
Roberts' speech will be rebroadcast by BYU Television on Sunday at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. It also will be available to watch online within a few days at byubroadcasting.org.
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