Chief Justice Roberts shows off science ties at RPI

'Our job ... is not to educate the public; our job is to decide the cases before us'
Chief Justice John Roberts speaks at RPI on Tuesday.
Chief Justice John Roberts speaks at RPI on Tuesday.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

TROY — Every former chief justice of the Supreme Court has some connection to science — however tenuous. At least that’s the case current Chief Justice John Roberts argued in front of students and faculty Tuesday at RPI.

NASA invited Warren Burger, who served as chief justice from 1969 to 1986, to provide a capsule of material for a launch into space. He included a pair of pocket constitutions, a book honoring the Supreme Court’s 200-year history and a commemorative medal emblazoned with the faces of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the court’s first chief.

Charles Evans Hughes’ daughter Elizabeth was one of the first humans ever injected with insulin, an experimental effort to treat her diabetes that ultimately extended her life into her 70s. A Franklin Roosevelt appointee was a former high school science teacher; another former chief justice promoted bridge-building and engineering as a congressman.

Some of the chief justices’ scientific bona fides were less substantial, Roberts joked. John Rutledge, an early and short-lived chief justice, was troubled by mental illness and mostly knew of science through the lens of a patient.

Melville Fuller, the eighth chief justice, might have had the weakest connection of all. He looked like Mark Twain. Mark Twain looked like Albert Einstein.

“That is the closest connection to science that I have found for Fuller,” Roberts said as he flipped through slides for each of his predecessors.

As for himself, Roberts admitted to relying on others with greater scientific expertise.    

“I have to say that, to date, my most significant connection to science is this, being here,” Roberts said.

Roberts made a short presentation on the history of chief justices and science before taking questions from RPI President Shirley Jackson and students.

But the Supreme Court often has to rule on cases involving highly technical scientific details. So how does he and his colleagues rule on such matters as legal generalists, Jackson asked.

Roberts said the justices have to be aware of the technical details of a case as best they can, relying on lawyers arguing the cases and groups that file amicus briefs, but they are often ruling on legal issues to which the technical details are not central.

An RPI engineering faculty member probed Roberts about the role of “universal truth” in the court’s work. Engineers and scientists seek out laws of nature that represent truths that exist in America the same as they exist in India. So how does the judiciary treat such universal truths, the professor asked.

But Roberts, admitting to “thinking out loud,” said truth is often not of concern to the court. The factual determinations of a matter are often left to lower courts and earlier decisions. Instead, the Supreme Court is evaluating whether the process of a legal matter followed the law and the constitution.

“I’m never asked to decide what the truth is; I’m asked to decide what the law is and to apply the law to the particular facts before me,” Roberts said. “You in the realm of physics deal with universal truth more than I do.”

Roberts also touched on some of the perennially hot-button Supreme Court issues: video cameras in the courtroom, strict constructionism and the confirmation battles of the last year.

While he thinks video cameras in the court would better inform the public about what the Supreme Court does and how it operates, their impact would ultimately “compromise” the court’s work, Roberts said. He said the court’s job is not to inform or educate the public but to decide cases and interpret the law and the constitution. Recording court proceedings may negatively impact the ways lawyers and justices behaved.  

“Video recordings would lead to a greater understand of what the court is doing,” he said. “Our job, however, is not to educate the public; our job is to decide the cases before us.”

He said he is also concerned the politicization and polarization over Supreme Court confirmations in Congress — like Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider Judge Merrick Garland for a vacant seat and the subsequent battle over the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was sworn in Monday as the court’s newest justice — could seep into the public’s perception of the court’s neutrality.

With the brutal politics of the confirmation process — which may be as bad as they have ever been, Roberts said — the public may think the candidates that emerge from that process are themselves political or ideological.

“It is a real danger that the partisan hostility that people see in the political branch will infect the nonpartisan activities of the judicial branch,” Roberts said. “That’s very unfortunate because we in the judiciary do not do our business in a partisan or ideological manner. … It’s hard for people to understand that when they see the (confirmation) process.”

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