I got the opportunity to attend the forum lecture by Chief Justice John Roberts at Brigham Young University today. The forum was well-attended; from my vantage point it looked as if almost all the regular seats were taken, with very little spill-over to the bleacher seats. When the Chief Justice entered, everyone stood--not an honor given to most forum speakers, at least in my memory. During the preliminary business, one thing stood out to me--Justice Roberts sang along with the opening hymn "Praise to the Lord". I thought that was a nice touch.
Justice Roberts began his talk by referencing President and Sister Samuelson's beginning-of-the-year devotional talks. In his address, President Samuelson asked BYU students to read a book about the Constitution of the United States. Justice Roberts "assigned" more reading--the Constitution itself. The bulk of his address focused on the Constitution and the intent of the founders in mandating the separation of powers. The founders knew it would inefficient to have federal powers held in three separate groupings (the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary), but they preferred it that way, anyway, seeing the separation as a check against the kind of tyranny they had rebelled against.
Even for all that, the judiciary does not have the type of power the other two branches of the government have (neither "the power of the purse nor the power of the sword" he quoted during the Q&A following the forum). Justice Roberts told a humorous story about how the first federal building built in Washington DC, was the White House (executive). Then the Capitol Building was completed (legislature). And the third building...was the Patent Office. The Supreme Court didn't get their own building until 1935--before that, they met in the basement of the Capitol.
Justice Roberts spoke about the United States Constitution has endured for 220 years. Although it has grand words and lofty ideals, that alone does not make it important. Without an independent judiciary to enforce those grand words, Roberts said (he may have been quoting), they are nothing but a cruel joke. The court case of Marbury v Madison established that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and that the Supreme Court interprets that law. This power underscores the need for an judiciary that is unafraid to make unpopular decisions, without fear or favor.
According to Justice Roberts, our country is unusual in that we only have ONE Supreme Court. Other countries may have a Constitutional Court in addition to other courts which settle tax, civil, and other types of cases. Justice Roberts sees that as a definite advantage, in that the justices don't spend all their time contemplating lofty notions and esoteric ideals. Many of the cases they decide have real-time consequences, and this keeps them grounded.
He finished his address by encouraging the audience to read unbiased histories of our country. Praising James Madison, fourth president of the United States and key framer of the Constitution, Justice Roberts recommended the Federalist Papers as a good place to start reading up on the Constitution.
As an example of a modern counterpoint to James Madison, Justice Roberts praised Rex Lee, Supreme Court litigator and past president of BYU. Rex Lee "balanced family, church, and private and public service". Justice Roberts told a story about a case he argued before the Supreme Court against President Lee. When he told his client that the ruling was unanimously against them, the client asked "Why did we lose 9-0?". Justice Roberts replied, "Because there are only nine justices."
Justice Roberts' remarks were interesting, informative, and amusing. He mentioned Utah, BYU, or Mormon pioneer history several times, giving his address a local flavor that was enjoyable. The audience gave him a standing ovation, and the applause lasted several minutes (the Chief Justice seemed a little embarrassed by this, but it was well-deserved.) This was one of the best forums I've attended.