Chief Justice Talks Prairie Dogs as Colleagues Talk Substance (2)

15 May 2024

US Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh spoke about the challenges of the busy shadow docket. Sonia Sotomayor on the coming of artificial intelligence. And Samuel Alito the threats to fundamental freedoms.

John Roberts talked about prairie dogs.

The chief justice is one of five current and former justices who spoke publicly from May 10 to 14.

His focus on history in a speech to an influential appeals court’s conference Tuesday contrasts to comments from his colleagues on the issues surrounding the high court, which faces historically low approval ratings amid ethics scandals and an aggressive 6-3 conservative majority.

But it’s in keeping with Roberts’ low-profile approach and seemingly purposeful refusal to address criticism head on.

“He has long taken his role as Chief as symbolic caretaker of the institutional reputation of the Supreme Court,” said Boston University law professor Robert Tsai, noting that Roberts tries to steer clear of contentious issues during public speeches.

But “his usual P.R. approach isn’t likely to put a dent in how many perceive the Court,” Tsai said in an email, as citizens are “much more tuned into the strong ideological tilt of the Court.”

On This Day

Many of Roberts’ colleagues appear as comfortable in front of public audiences as they do behind the bench.

Sotomayor, a children’s book author, frequently appears at author talks and teams up with other justices to give speeches on pet projects. She and Amy Coney Barrett did repeat appearances recently to emphasize the court’s collegiality. And she and Neil Gorsuch speak on the importance of civics education.

Both Barrett and Gorsuch have upcoming books, as does the newest justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, who also did a high-profile photo shoot for Vogue shortly after her confirmation.

The justices speak at annual federal appeals court conferences, as was the case last week for Kavanaugh and Thomas, who spoke before the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits respectively.

Both raised concerns about the Supreme Court’s growing emergency docket, saying it pressures justices to make quick rulings in controversial issues before developing a complete understanding of the facts.

But Roberts, who rarely speaks publicly, largely sidesteps the substantive issues facing the court, whether in his end-of-year reports or when he talks to gatherings of lawyers.

His speech Tuesday at the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s conference used a “this day in history” theme. May 14, Roberts noted, was an important day for both the crafting of the US Constitution and for Lewis and Clark’s trip to explore and chart the American West.

He focused on the ambitious and innovative nature of the expedition, which included scientists, diplomats, and reporters.

Among other discoveries were prairie dogs, one of which Roberts said was trapped by a member of the expedition. The justice noted the animal was sick when it arrived in New Orleans, according to correspondence from the time.

But the prairie dog was resilient and made it back to Washington, Roberts explained.

Roberts then emphasized the Federal Circuit’s own important role in deciding intellectual property disputes, from copyrights to patents.

If that’s not inspiration enough, Roberts said, “try to remember the trip of the prairie dog.”

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