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August 24, 2005

The Lighter Side Of John Roberts

So much has been written about the horrors of a Roberts confirmation that I thought you might enjoy reading some of the nominee's snarkier asides. This has got to be the only useful thing to be culled from all those boxes and boxes of documents from Judge Roberts' Reagan years.

A bit of judicial snark from his dissent in the Hapless Toad case:

The panel's approach in this case leads to the result that regulating the taking of a hapless toad that, for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California constitutes regulating "Commerce ... among the several States."

Roberts' incredulous dissent in a case where the Court wanted to second-guess a search of a car trunk on probable cause:

Sometimes a car being driven by an unlicensed driver, with no registration and stolen tags, really does belong to the driver’s friend, and sometimes dogs do eat homework, but in neither case is it reasonable to insist on checking out the story before taking other appropriate action. Even if Jackson had provided contact information for his girlfriend in response to inquiries from the officers, and even if the officers had been able to reach the girlfriend and she were responsive to their questions, I cannot see any conceivable value in the over-the-phone testimony of a suspect’s apparent girlfriend — someone unknown to the officers, whose number was given to them by the suspect himself — that an unregistered car with stolen tags, driven by an unlicensed driver, was indeed hers and was being used with her permission.
In a case involving alleged discrimination and a church-run school, Roberts wrote in a memo dated Aug. 2, 1984, "There should be little press interest . . . since we are on the side of the black parents at this point."

Answering letters to the Reagan White House was an interesting job:

In one memo, replying to an eccentric octogenarian who had written in suggesting that the 17th Amendment, which mandated the direct election of US senators, was invalid, Roberts said the White House would normally not reply, but should make an exception in this case.

''Anyone who can quote inspiring passages from Plato and Webster, however, and use a word like 'slumgullion,' deserves a reply, and I have drafted one," he wrote.

In August 1983, he reviewed what he called a "snide letter" to Reagan from a University of Georgia professor who alleged that a government agency was compiling a blacklist and then suggested the government might investigate him for complaining.

In a memo to Fielding, Roberts added parenthetically, "Once you let the word out there's a blacklist, everybody wants to get on."

After the Supreme Court struck down efforts by Congress to veto actions taken by the executive branch, Mr. Levitas, a Democrat from Georgia, proposed that the White House and Congress convene a "conference on power-sharing" to codify the duties of each branch of government.

Asked to comment on the congressman's proposal, Mr. Roberts mocked the idea, and him. "There already has, of course, been a 'Conference on Power Sharing,'" Mr. Roberts wrote in a memo to Mr. Fielding. "It took place in Philadelphia's Constitution Hall in 1787, and someone should tell Levitas about it and the 'report' it issued."

In another August 1983 memo to Fielding, Roberts reviewed a recent speech by Stuart Statler, a member of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, on a Supreme Court ruling on the division of government powers.

In the speech, Roberts wrote, Statler had suggested Congress strip from the executive branch the Justice Department's authority to represent federal agencies in court.

"There is so much wrong with so much of what Statler suggests that it is probably best simply to acknowledge receipt of his speech," Roberts told Fielding, "and tell him you look forward to reading it."

Another area that seemed to arouse Roberts' especial pique was the question of Presidential endorsements:

"I recognize that I am something of a vox clamans in terris in this area, but enough is enough," he wrote in a memorandum in June 1984, using the approximate Latin for "voice crying in the wilderness." He added, "The Office of Presidential Correspondence is not yet an adjunct of Michael Jackson's P.R. firm."

Apparently the nominee found Jackson's image incompatible with the Presidential dignity:

"...sashaying around in garish sequined costumes, hair dripping with pomade, body shot full of female hormones ...mono-gloved... a shallow effort by the President to share in the constant publicity surrounding Jackson. . . . The whole episode would, in my view, be demeaning to the President."

Mr. Jackson came in for several attacks of the Poison Pen after Roberts lost a battle to prevent Jackson from receiving a Presidential award against drunk driving. Roberts had argued that:

"A presidential award to Jackson would be perceived as a shallow effort by the president to exploit the constant publicity surrounding Jackson, particularly since other celebrities have done as much for worthy causes as Jackson but have not been singled out by the President."
After losing that battle, he unloaded 10 days later on Jackson after reading remarks Reagan was to deliver at the award ceremony, saying 100 women who work at the White House "all said their name is Billie Jean."
"Cognoscenti will recognize the allusion to a character in one of Mr. Jackson's popular ballads, a young lass who claims -- falsely, according to the oft-repeated refrain of the singer -- that the singer is the father of her illegitimate child. This may be someone's idea of presidential humor, but it certainly is not mine."

The Gloved One seemed to dog Roberts' steps, but eventually he had his Revenge:

Three months later, Mr. Roberts was batting away a new request. "I hate to sound like one of Mr. Jackson's records, constantly repeating the same refrain, but I recommend that we not approve this letter." He noted that a press report said that some young fans were turning from Mr. Jackson "in favor of a newcomer who goes by the name 'Prince.' "

Mr. Roberts asked, "Will he receive a presidential letter?"

To be fair, the entire idea of Presidential endorsements sent sparks flying from Roberts' pen. A suggestion that Reagan endorse a new china pattern aroused his particular derision:

"This would not only contravene established White House policy concerning endorsement of commercial products, but also, given this particular pattern, call into serious question the president's taste in dinner service."

Even seemingly innocent proposals were examined carefully:

Another day found the future Supreme Court nominee advising whether there was a legal problem with helping the Peanuts production of "This Is America, Charlie Brown" at the White House. Mr. Roberts gave his approval, but with a firm caveat that the president should turn down an invitation to appear with Charlie and Snoopy in the final scene.

"In sum," he wrote, "I must recommend against this proposed return to the president's previous career."

The next year, Mr. Roberts was consulted about a plan to have the president write St. Patrick's Day greetings to the Irish ambassador under a special letterhead reading "An Teach Ban," Gaelic for "The White House."

Mr. Roberts had no legal objection. But he strongly advised that the translation be verified. "For all I know it means 'Free the I.R.A.,' " he added, referring to the Irish Republican Army.

Finally, in a moment that may come back to haunt Roberts, even his future colleagues came in for a bit of joshing in a 1983 memo:

Judge Roberts also crafted another rhetorical zinger against the justices, two of whom remain on the court and may soon become colleagues, Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Stevens. “The generally accepted notion that the court can only hear roughly 150 cases each term gives the same sense of reassurance as the adjournment of the court in July, when we know the Constitution is safe for the summer,” he quipped."

Posted by Cassandra at August 24, 2005 07:06 AM

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» Vox Clamans in Terris from Isaac Schrödinger
The more I read about John Roberts, the more I like him. [Read More]

Tracked on August 25, 2005 03:32 AM


Hee hee.
I love this guy!

Posted by: spd rdr at August 24, 2005 08:31 AM

Confirm Roberts YESTERDAY!!!

Posted by: MathMom at August 24, 2005 08:45 AM

Huh....a Supreme Snarker..
I like that!!!!
Hope he lets loose on Ruth Bader Ginsberg in front of a camera sometime.
That would make my whole.damn.year.

Posted by: Carrie at August 24, 2005 08:50 AM

Thanks for collecting these Cass. I have read each one of these as they came out, and with every one I thought how much I appreciate his sense of humor. He is very funny, though dry, which often leads to misunderstandings by people who aren't used to such things. I know first hand.

Let's have him over for dinner, y'all.

Posted by: KJ at August 24, 2005 10:18 AM

I find myself liking him enormously too KJ. It really cheered me up this morning, just reading all his little quips.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 24, 2005 11:00 AM

Smart a$$. You would think with all the weighty issues the Supreme Court has to deal with such as legislating from the bench, interpreting the constitution and reading the Founder's minds that he wouldn't have time to slip in the odd aside or two.

So, what are we waiting for?

Posted by: Cricket at August 24, 2005 11:47 AM

So, does Vox in terris (whatever. I am in my blond surfer dudette mode right now) mean a voice from the dust or a voice howling in the wilderness and should I have clicked on the link to find the translation?

Can you imagine the Dread Pirate Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Walter Williams on the SC? I know Williams is a 'mere' economist, but still.

Posted by: Cricket at August 24, 2005 11:52 AM

It means 'voice crying out in the wilderness', which I wouldn't know except it happens to be the motto or whatever from Dartmouth, but he cleverly twisted it to be the only voice crying out in the Land, or some such nonsense, (either that or he forgot the original latin). But given his intelligence and Prep School background, I suspect it was intentional.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 24, 2005 12:03 PM

Ah. Intentional snarking in a dead language. Yep, he would be the lone voice in the land.

I agree with KJ. Let's have them over for dinner.

I will bring Bananas Foster Cheesecake.

Posted by: Cricket at August 24, 2005 12:17 PM

Mmmmmm... Cheesecake...


Posted by: Homer at August 24, 2005 12:41 PM

Yep! The more I hear about him, the more I like him!

Bananas foster cheescake? Cricket, you rock!! (as my ten year old, would say)

Posted by: JannyMae at August 24, 2005 12:50 PM

Just the fact that our sisters/brothers on the left are against him was enough for me to be FOR him; but now after reading your post I like him even more!

Posted by: bynki at August 24, 2005 01:04 PM

sorry - I was multi-tasking and didn't read your question carefully Cricket.

vox clamantis in deserto is 'voice crying out in the wilderness'

terris, as far as I know, is just Earth, which I loosely translated as the land

Posted by: Cassandra at August 24, 2005 01:25 PM

Fair enough. I got the gist of it, which given my tendencies lately means I actually got it.

I do have the recipe for it and it is decadent.
I could almost give up chocolate.

Posted by: Cricket at August 24, 2005 01:31 PM

Thanks Cassandrea. Good post. Tried to trackback but it didn't seem to want to ping. But the last time I did one a second time I got two. :))

Posted by: David Neylon [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 24, 2005 06:28 PM

Give up chocolate? That's heresy! Well, you did say, "almost," didn't you. That was a close one!

Posted by: JannyMae at August 24, 2005 08:18 PM

It's been said by others, but please allow me to augment with my faux gravitas...the more I hear about this Roberts character, the more I just know he's my kind of guy.
(A smartass; better than a dumbass by a country mile...)

Posted by: camojack at August 25, 2005 07:29 AM

Heh. I like the crack about calling into question President Reagan's taste in dinnerware.

I say again, heh.

Posted by: Eric Blair at August 25, 2005 03:51 PM

I laughed like a hapless toady.

Posted by: The Engineer at August 26, 2005 11:25 PM

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