Supreme Court chief justice speaks at UM

If not for a chance encounter between two judges at the University of Miami Law School in 1978, John G. Roberts, Jr. may not be where he is today – chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

William Rehnquist, then an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Henry Friendly, an appellate judge on the second circuit, met at a UM Law School event and soon became friends. Roberts clerked for Friendly from 1979 to 1980, straight out of Harvard Law School.

Roberts, 51, recounted this and other stories to 3,000 students, faculty and special guests at the inaugural University Lecture Series Monday night at the BankUnited Center.

The friendship between Rehnquist and Friendly led the former to hire Roberts as a clerk in 1980. Dean Colson, chairman of the UM Board of Trustees, began clerking for Rehnquist at the same time.

“We all knew that he was special, even at that young age [25],” he said in his introductory remarks at the event.

In a phone interview with The Miami Hurricane, Colson said that Roberts is one of the greatest lawyers in the country and will be a great chief justice.

Colson, who invited Roberts to speak at UM about a month ago, was the best man at Roberts’ wedding in 1996.

Roberts and his wife, Jane Sullivan Roberts, adopted two infants in 2000 – Josephine and Jack.

“A great thing about having young children is that they don’t care if you’re the chief justice or whatever, they do make sure you have a good perspective on life and what’s important,” he said.

Jack, 5 at the time, became famous for stealing the spotlight at his father’s press conference at the White House after President George W. Bush nominated Roberts in July 2005 to replace retiring associate justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“People think Jack was dancing,” Roberts said. “He was not dancing; he was being Spider-Man.”

Roberts said he looked forward to sitting on the bench with his former boss, Rehnquist.

But, sadly, this would not be.

Rehnquist, who became chief justice in 1986, died on Sept. 3, 2005. Three days later, Bush nominated Roberts, who was one of Rehnquist’s pallbearers, to fill the seat.

In discussing his responsibilities as chief justice, he said the importance of the job hits him almost everyday.

“If you think about it too much it can be paralyzing,” he said, adding that he believes the position should be used to help the court speak with one voice. “It is an important responsibility because you can exercise some power of persuasion in getting the court to function as a court.”

As a court, Roberts believes that there is one quality that sits low on the list of those that should be present at conference sessions, when the nine justices go around the table voicing their opinions.

“Boldness is a virtue you look for in other branches [rather] than the judicial,” he said, noting that it is the responsibility of the elected legislature to bring about concrete change in society.

As is such, Roberts repeatedly emphasized the role and independence of the judiciary.

“Judges are protected from politics because they are supposed to uphold the rule of law,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot more to life than politics.”

Greg Linch may be contacted at