This weekend, in flyover country, the humanity and civility of Supreme Court Justices was on full display–and that is a wonderful thing

Photo credit: NATI HARNIK/The Associated Press

Photo credit: Nati Harnik/The Associated Press. Chief Justice Roberts and Chief Judge Bill Riley of the Eighth Circuit. Chief Judge Riley sits on the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States and is highly regarded nationally.  He and I went to law school together and we have long been friends. He is a great guy.

Chief Justice John Roberts spoke at the University of Nebraska College of Law in Lincoln, Nebraska on Friday, and then he attended the barn burner of a game on Saturday night where the Huskers defeated Miami. See here. At roughly the same time, Justice Clarence Thomas spoke in Tyler, Texas, prompting editorial praise: “When U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at The University of Texas at Tyler, he spoke softly. He spoke without rancor, without partisanship and without demonizing his opponents.”

If you read the news coverage of these events you will see that the Justices each took pains to distinguish the Third Branch from the political branches of government. A reader of that coverage would, unless he or she was a terrible cynic, come to realize that the Supreme Court is radically different from the Executive and Legislative branches of government both in terms of the quality of the decision makers and how they do their work.

The Justices are brilliant and serious people. Despite their substantive differences, they like each other. They are humble despite their accomplishments. They are funny in a wry and self-deprecating manner. They honestly believe that none of them are partisans. They like football and steak just like many of us do. They also don’t mind a beer or two. While they are happy to be liked, they don’t campaign for public acclaim or acceptance. Every decision they make is accompanied by a reasoned analysis, rather than political mumbo jumbo.

When the Justices take time to come to the sticks and speak quietly about their work, they do enormous good for the institution of the Supreme Court. Here’s hoping that they continue to see more tumbleweed in the years to come.

Photo credit: My Way. This foreign blogger who traveled across the United States by car added, "I see my first ever tumbleweed in Nebraska, that's all I have to say about Nebraska."

Photo credit: My Way. This young English blogger who traveled across the United States by car added, “I see my first ever tumbleweed in Nebraska, that’s all I have to say about Nebraska.” If he had cared about American history and the opening of the West, this highway would have taken him to the Homestead National Monument of America. The dismissive English blogger even got the Highway number wrong. He was on Highway 136, not 163.



20 responses

  1. When Bork attended a game at Memorial Stadium, he commented it was the first time he really understood the term civil religion Wonder if SCOTUS CJ was equally impacted? Problem is once we once we turn those we do not agree with into demons, which is now our style of politics, hard to give judges a pass. Public law is politics done in dresses, and while the divides may not be partisan they are ideological.

  2. Justice Sotomayor was in Oklahoma a little over a week ago and she was phenomenal. She spoke at all three law schools in our state and at each stop was warm, candid, and utterly respectful of her colleagues on the Court.

  3. backuschinablog,

    Thanks for this additional information. It is very good to hear, and confirms my sense that the Justices do us all an enormous service when they lift the veil and show themselves, and their colleagues, to be the thoughtful and respectful people that they clearly are. All the best.


  4. repenting lawyer,

    The American people understand and will accept ideological difference respectfully debated by judges in reasoned opinions but they don’t want partisan judges. The more the Justices can explain to regular people in the sticks and elsewhere that there is a meaningful difference between a judge’s jurisprudential views (ideology, if you while) and raw partisanship the better we will be for that education. All the best.


  5. No one doubts that judges in the main are nice folks, but Roscoe Pound, who first used the phrase living Constitution, also wrote extensively about judges and lawyers as disliked as a learned and priestly caste.An exaggeration, but when every person is a Constitutional scholar and when alleged meaning of the document is a political football I think you maybe an optimist. Law students love judicial visits but they are not really the public. UK Supreme Court televises argument and has ditched wigs and robes, interesting to see if that helps. Read their opinions, that is why lawyers get paid.

  6. repenting lawyer,

    I don’t expect a sea change. But one might be surprised how hungry lay people are for knowledge about the federal courts without political spin.

    All the best.


  7. In terms of experience, I came across “Judged: A Court Simulation” while browsing Kickstarter. It puts you in the role of the judge and has a goal of “paint[ing] a compelling story of the harsh realities facing people in the legal community.” I’ve no clue how accurate it is.

  8. Judge:
    Great to see the Chief Justice enjoying himself in your neck of the woods. Overall, my sense is that most judges are good and decent people who, despite their fallibility and the stresses of their jobs, try to do the right thing. We are entitled to nothing less but cannot expect anything more.

  9. Judge Kopf, you seem to be laboring under the misconception that the only problem with the judiciary is an image problem. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The problem with the judiciary is not that judges are misunderstood but rather, that we understand you too well. The only judicial speech I care about is the written opinion, and when these brilliant men and women abuse precedent or fabricate facts in their opinions, it is pretty obvious to everyone. Ironically, it is on account of their admitted brilliance that we have to conclude that they acted in bad faith.

    All I think the people want is intellectually honest opinions that demonstrate that judges have applied the law of the land fairly, and that is not something we see enough of. “Public law is politics done in dresses” sums it up.

  10. I think that we have a right to expect nothing less than coherent and intellectually honest decisions. Until we receive that on a consistent basis, the judiciary will be and deserves to be an object of public scorn.

    One of my favorite quotes in this regard is from John Wooden: “If you don’t have time to do it right, will you have the time to do it over?”

  11. Wolverine,

    With sincere respect, this blog stands for the proposition that the there are many big and small problems with the federal judiciary. Image is only a small one, but it is not insignificant. All the best.


  12. Read Law and the Modern Mind at 16, probably caused permanent damage, but I do not use either politics or ideology as pejoratives, on the other hand law is not a brooding omnipresence in the sky, thanks OWH jr, and being old enough to remember Burton, Minton, and Tom Clark, let alone Whittaker, not sure brilliance is a standard feature of the members of SCOTUS.

  13. So kind of Circuit Bill from the Nebraska Law class of ’72 to take John to the game and show him a good time after John took the time to reassure the Nebraska Law students that “While political partisanship flourishes in the halls of Congress, it has no place in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court…”

    He goes on to bemoan
    how “an intelligent layperson” might think otherwise when they see the almost strict partisan confirmation votes on “eminently qualified” nominees to the court.

    ~~~When the Justices take time to come to the sticks and speak quietly about their work, they do enormous good for the institution of the Supreme Court. Here’s hoping that they continue to see more tumbleweed in the years to come.~~~

    Maybe so Judge, maybe so…I just don’t know.

    But I will propose a toast for the next tail gate party you attend:

    “Here’s hoping that more eminently qualified law school graduates from the tumbleweeds (they actually do exist) will be nominated to the Supreme Court in the years to come.”

    Not saying the current Nine are not up to the task they were assigned or anything nor am I saying that they don’t know how to party but it often takes some tumbleweed experience and expertise to spot when the climbing woody vines of the Araliaceae Family need a little trimming before they are allowed to run completely wild and damage the mortar and foundations of otherwise solidly built structures.

    Speaking of football, steaks, and beers..

    Did you know the annual rivalry football contest between Harvard Crimson and the Yale Bulldogs also known as “The Game” has been taking place since 1875.

    The Yale Bulldogs currently lead the series by a score of 65–57–8. This is nicely reflected by the Yale Bulldogs having 28 College Football Hall of Fame inductees to Harvard Crimsons 20 this far.

    Interestingly enough the current make up of the Untied States Supreme Court is nicely reflected in another Harvard Yale rivalry with Harvard Crimson currently leading the Yale Bulldogs by the score of 20 to 17 Supreme Court Justices having served.

    John Harvard Law ’79

    Antonin Harvard Law ’60

    Anthony Harvard Law ’61

    Clarence Yale Law ’74

    Ruth Columbia Law ’59 (transferred from Harvard Law)

    Stephen Harvard ’64

    Samuel Yale Law ’75

    Sonia Yale Law ’79

    Elena Harvard Law ’86

    P.S Enough with all fluff. Were you and Bill Riley classmates that graduated together back in the day?

    If so, all I really want to know is if John told Bill to tell you to STFU? Humanly civil and curious minds just need to know. 😉

    But if you ain’t saying…you ain’t saying. You Third Branch football fans need to keep some secrets I guess.

    Well I sure hope Bill, took the time to at least show the Harvard kid how the kids from the tumbleweeds of Nebraska tailgate.

  14. John Barleycorn,

    Bill and I were classmates, and both graduated in 1972. In fact, Bill and I were interviewed by the same two Court of Appeals judges (Lay and Ross) and they both hired us. That is, we were told to pick the judge for whom we wanted to clerk. Riley picked Lay because Bill had a job that would only keep for a year and Lay’s clerkship was for one year only. I went to Ross ’cause I didn’t have a job and his clerkship lasted two years. It worked out great for me because Judge Ross became a mentor and a good friend. I later practiced law with the Judge’s brother-in-law, Ed Cook, for 13 years out near where Central time blends into Mountain time. Ed’s grandfather started the firm in the 1880s back when Lexington was called Plum Creek and the town was populated with brothels and bars as the Union Pacific stretched its rails west. Ed is the best lawyer I have ever known, and the best person I have ever known.

    No judge, Riley or otherwise, has said a negative word to me about blogging. On the other hand, there have been encouraging remarks such as those coming from Chief Judge Laurie Smith Camp of our court. So, the answer to your question is that “John [did not tell] Bill to tell [me] to STFU.” My guess is that the Chief Justice didn’t care.

    All the best.


  15. Judge Kopf, I’m a 2L and attended this event at our law school. What an amazing experience to hear two wonderful jurists speak about the law and how it serves as the foundation of our country. There’s so much drama in the news from people who don’t really understand how the law works.

    I hope events like this one can cut through the ratings-driven “he said she said” discourse on cable news. We’re better than that, and I think if you had discussions on MSNBC like this one between the Chief Justice and Judge Riley would serve to destroy such misconceptions. Problem is, they make too much money keeping people misinformed, so they’ll never give over the airtime.

  16. Bill,

    Thanks for taking the time to write. The Hruska Institute, funded by a generous donation from Roman Hruska, a distinguish lawyer and United States Senator who served many years on the Judiciary Committee, is a Nebraska treasurer. Events like this serve a wonderful educational function for us all, and also as antidote to the unjustified cynicism about the good faith of the federal judiciary.

    All the best.


  17. When you noted that the local editorial re: Justice Thomas’s appearance noted that he didn’t “demonize his opponents,” it raised the issue of why an associate justice of the Supreme Court, serving a lifetime term would have “opponents,” and why his “choice” to not demonize them would be worthy of praise is troubling to me and, I hope to others as well.

  18. Tom,

    Very interesting point. The local editorial apparently expected something else from the Justice. The fact that Justice Thomas did not speak in vitrolic terms is precisely the point–the Justices, and what they do, are truly different from politicians and the political branches of government they serve. That the Justice’s remarks were civil and that civility noteable to the lay public is itself a sad commentary on the present status of civic discourse in this country. All the best.


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