|John Roberts at the University
of Miami last November
Last July, I went to the Supreme Court to interview John G. Roberts Jr., who had just completed his first term as chief justice of the United States. I was finishing a book about judicial temperament, and Roberts, who is a keen student of constitutional history, had agreed to share some thoughts on the subject. I had interviewed Roberts once before, when his nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was stalled in the Senate, but I had not talked to him since he became chief justice and was eager to hear his thoughts about the new job.
The chief justice’s chambers are impressive without being showy. They include a paneled waiting room, the private conference room in which all nine justices meet to discuss cases after oral arguments, and a cozy inner office with fading photographs—hung by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist in the 1980s—that Roberts hadn’t yet bothered to replace. In shirtsleeves and a tie, Roberts invited me to take off my jacket and have a seat in his office, on a nineteenth-century couch that, according to Court lore, is the one on which John Quincy Adams expired in the House of Representatives.
"Whose Court Is It Really?" (January/February 2006)
John Roberts is the new chief justice, but the Supreme Court isn't his to lead just yet. By Benjamin Wittes
"Rehnquist the Great?" (April 2004)
Even liberals may come to regard William Rehnquist as one of the most successful chief justices of the century. By Jeffrey Rosen
Before long, the conversation turned to judicial disappointments. “It’s sobering to think of the seventeen chief justices; certainly a solid majority of them have to be characterized as failures,” Roberts said with a rueful smile. “The successful ones are hard to number.” I asked him to elaborate: Why had so many chief justices been failures? Partly, Roberts explained, it was because the powers of the office are not extensive. “A chief justice’s authority is really quite limited, and the dynamic among all the justices is going to affect whether he can accomplish much or not,” he said. “There is this convention of referring to the Taney Court, the Marshall Court, the Fuller Court, but a chief justice has the same vote that everyone else has.” As a result, “the chief’s ability to get the Court to do something is really quite restrained.”