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Roberts Stresses Courts’ Independence

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Times Staff Writer

In a wide-ranging speech that touched on issues personal and professional, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said he wanted to improve relations between the courts and Congress to ensure the judiciary remained independent.

The comments came during a talk Thursday before a packed ballroom of about 400 people at the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference in Huntington Beach. The annual conference was attended by federal judges and lawyers from throughout the 9th Circuit, which includes nine Western states.

Roberts opened the lunchtime conversation with a 10-minute speech sprinkled with humor. The chief justice, who President Bush nominated to his post last year, recounted some of his favorite moments from his first term.

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He said he had always wondered what was in the notes that justices passed during hearings.

He found out the day a light bulb exploded during a session, showering the court clerk with glass shards. A justice passed Roberts a note. Roberts wondered what constitutional law question his colleague was pondering.

“Have you checked the other light bulbs yet?” the justice wanted to know.

A few weeks later, Roberts recalled, a chunk of marble the size of a basketball fell from the ceiling, prompting references in the news media to the court “losing its marbles.”

Roberts’ appearance was the concluding event of the four-day conference at the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa. Panel sessions covered such topics as sentencing guidelines, disaster planning and “Oh, My Aching Back,” a session on preventing lower back pain.

After his speech, Roberts sat in a brown leather armchair beside a lawyer and two judges. The three asked Roberts his thoughts on topics such as judicial salary increases and what it was like to be the chief justice and, at 51, the youngest person on the court.

Roberts said his colleagues had been extremely helpful and accepting.

“There was not the slightest hint of ‘I’ve been here a lot longer than you have,’ ” he said.

When one judge read from a newspaper editorial saying that Congress could use a lesson in judicial independence, the chief justice agreed that the relationship between the two branches of government needed improvement.

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“I bet we’re not going to do it by promoting myself as the teacher and Congress as the students,” he cautioned.

Roberts said he was trying to meet with legislators more often.

How does Roberts, who has a 5- and a 6-year-old, juggle his judicial duties with parenting?

With the same difficulty as any working parent, he said.

When contemplating spending time away from home to attend conferences or give talks, Roberts said he reminded himself that there was always going to be another conference.

“But the kids are going to be 5 only once,” he said.

Roberts, who has what one law professor described as “a conservative mind but a diplomat’s nature,” is known for building a consensus. He took pride in the number of unanimously decided cases this term.

“I do think it promotes the rule of law to have the court speaking, as much as possible, with one voice,” he said.

Roberts steered clear of discussing recent split verdicts that grabbed headlines, such as last month’s declaration that Bush had overstepped his authority by setting up special military trials at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba without congressional approval.

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The chief justice also said not to expect televised Supreme Court proceedings soon. The cameras might have an adverse effect on the institution, he said.

“We don’t have oral arguments to show people, the public, how we function,” he said. The court releases audiotapes of its hearings.

But many in the crowd were most interested to hear that he planned to improve the courts’ relationship with Congress -- a concern on many judges’ minds.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said she was pleased to hear Roberts would work to maintain the judiciary’s independence.

“Some of us have become concerned as we hear some of the comments from our policymakers about the judiciary,” Marshall said. “We think, have they forgotten the Constitution? That there are three branches of government and that we’re co-equals?”

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