By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was squarely in the spotlight at Middlebury College’s Mead Chapel on Tuesday night, but it was Roberts’ predecessor, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who stole most of the headlines.
Speaking in front of an overflow crowd, Roberts credited Rehnquist — a part-time Greensboro resident for whom he clerked — for leading an exceptional life and for bringing more focused legal discourse to the land’s highest court.
Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz paid further homage to the late justice by announcing the establishment of an endowed “William H. Rehnquist Professorship of American History and Culture.” Rehnquist had delivered a speech at the college in 1998.
During around 25 minutes of opening remarks and about 30 minutes of question-and-answer repartee with students, Roberts paid tribute to Rehnquist and offered his views on the Supreme Court’s role as an independent body and how improving technology will challenge justices to protect Constitutional rights to privacy and free speech.
The life of a judge, Roberts summarized, is full of choices — something that Rehnquist frequently told his charges.
“As (Rehnquist) put it, ‘how wisely you make those choices will determine how well you think you spent your life when you look back on it,’” said Roberts, who was confirmed as the 17th chief justice of the court on Sept. 25, 2005. “When you look back on the life of Justice Rehnquist, I’m struck by how many of his choices were extraordinarily unconventional.”
He specifically cited Rehnquist’s decisions to join the military during World War II as an enlisted man rather than train to be an officer, and to give up the job security of an established law firm in Phoenix after only a few years to begin a firm of his own.
Rehnquist’s reputation for the unconventional gained more notoriety soon after he joined the Supreme Court in 1972, according to Roberts.
“In his early years, he was the dissenting voice on the court,” so often that a Lone Ranger doll adorned the mantel of his home for many years, Roberts noted.
He recalled another anecdote about Rehnquist missing a state-of-the-union address one year because he had signed up for a watercolor class at the local YMCA.
“(Rehnquist) responded that he had spent $25 signing up for the class and he was going to get every dollar out of it,” Roberts said, with a grin.
Roberts noted Rehnquist did not like to draw attention to himself, one time introducing himself as a “government lawyer” at a church service. He wore long sideburns and Buddy Holly glasses “long after they were fashionable,” according to Roberts.
Rehnquist’s unconventional nature paid dividends in how he influenced proceedings before the court when he became chief justice in 1986, according to Roberts.
Roberts said that legal arguments before the Supreme Court became more “rigorous and focused.”
“Any lawyer stating an abstract proposition, when the chief justice was presiding, would be met with what was the standard Rehnquist question: Which case law supports that proposition?” Roberts said.
Prior to Rehnquist’s arrival, legal arguments before the court were more “freewheeling and free-ranging,” while during his tenure the former chief justice oversaw a major shift, Roberts said.
“When he left the court, the arguments were more about law, which I think arguments to the court should be,” Roberts said.
Once done with his speech, Roberts fielded around a dozen questions from the floor. He did not discuss cases pending before the court, but did respond to broad queries on such topics as:
• Having an independent judiciary.
“One thing we stand for is the rule of law implemented by an independent judiciary,” Roberts said. “People often ask me, ‘what is it about being Chief Justice that has surprised you the most?’ The answer for me, anyway, is the number of judicial visitors we get at the Supreme Court from around the world that come … to try to learn how to establish independent judiciary — something we take for granted.”
• The top matters to face the court in the coming five years.
Roberts said he expects advances in technology will make it more challenging for courts in weighing cases dealing with privacy issues, DNA evidence, and the like.
“I think across the board, new technology is going to challenge the established legal rules, and we’re going to have to figure out when they need to be adjusted and when you can stick with the rules over time,” Roberts said.
• Relying on legal precedent in making decisions.
“I don’t have so expansive an ego that I don’t care what (past justices) have thought about a question,” Roberts said. “I want to know what they thought. That’s the way our law progresses.”
Roberts’ speech drew one of the largest crowds ever for an on-campus event at Middlebury College. Members of the college community were asked to arrive at 7 p.m. to snap up one of the 700 seats inside historic Mead Chapel. By 6:40 p.m., the line extended several hundred feet from the chapel entrance, through the green, all the way to Old Chapel.
Freshman Will Tucker was the first in line. He had staked out his spot at 4 p.m.
“I don’t really know much about his opinions,” Tucker said when asked about his interest in the speech. “I wanted to see him in person and gauge from what I see.”
As the line moved slowly into Mead Chapel, a group of around 15 people — many of them students — held a peaceful demonstration to underscore Roberts’ potential influence over some big issues that are likely to come before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some of the protestors were dressed in orange prison garb, like that worn by prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. They also wore sunglasses, earmuffs and medical masks to illustrate the perceived lack of rights the detainees have while incarcerated.
Other protestors wore black plastic hoods and ponchos. They stood on wooden boxes, their hands outstretched bearing fake electrodes, to symbolize the torture faced by Abu Ghraib prisoners in Iraq.
They held signs reading, “No one is free when others are oppressed,” and, “Does this look like justice?”
Some of the protestors pointed to some of Roberts’ previous rulings against granting writs of habeas corpus to enemy combatants.
“We think that some kind of (habeas corpus) case will come before him,” said Kate Brittain, a college senior dressed in prison clothing. “We want to make people aware of the choices he might make.”