Chief justice comes in strong off bench

Lecture mixes history lesson, judicial principle, predictions for future and salute to Jayhawks

Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. addresses a capacity crowd at the Lied Center. Roberts on Wednesday gave the 40th lecture in the Vickers Memorial Lecture Series.

John Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States, used the 205th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase to argue that individuals who are lawyers or who have good business sense – or preferably both – have the opportunity to alter the course of a nation.

In a Vickers Lecture on Wednesday before a full house at Kansas University’s Lied Center, Roberts told how the events leading up to April 30, 1803, altered American history forever. Appropriately, though, being a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Roberts explained some of the concerns that then-President Thomas Jefferson raised about whether he had the constitutional power to make the agreement.

“The Supreme Court rules 25 years later that the Constitution confers on the government of the Union the powers of making war and making treaties,” Roberts said.

Roberts, who sprinkled his speech on the Louisiana Purchase with jokes, concluded with a line tailored to his audience.

“If the treaty had fallen through, imagine how different the world would be,” he said, referring to French ownership of the Louisiana Purchase territory. “Imagine a Kansas cookout with berets instead of ball caps, beef bourguignonne instead of barbecue and fans yelling ‘Vive les Jayhawks.'”

The last line drew a hearty round of applause, and a lively question and answer period followed the 30-minute speech.

Adam Davis, a third-year law student, quoted Justice Antonin Scalia in calling the U.S. Constitution “dead” and asked Roberts what he thought of the Constitution. The question earned a loud round of applause.

In a recent interview for the CBS program “60 Minutes,” Scalia said he opposed the concept of the Constitution as a living document whose meaning changes as times and judges’ values change.

“Legal documents don’t live or die,” Roberts said. “It’s a piece of paper. It’s the most important piece of paper in our nation’s history, but it’s not helpful to think of it as living or dead.”

Roberts springboarded from that answer to deliver his point on the “great danger” of judicial activism – a theme he returned to in later questions as well.

“I’m sure the Framers would have never agreed that this document could be changed by the one branch of government that was not elected that cannot be removed,” Roberts said. “There’s a way to change it, but it’s not by judicial decision.”

In response to another question, Roberts said he expected the greatest challenge for the Supreme Court in the next 25 years to deal with the changes brought about by technological advancement.

“We’ve developed a whole body of law about when you can search a house, when you have to knock and when you can just break down the door,” Roberts said. “And then along comes science and you can see through the walls. It’s a very challenging balance.”

Davis posed another difficult question when given his second opportunity, asking Roberts specifically how he viewed the role of checks and balances between the judicial and executive branches.

And while Roberts heartily advocated for checks and balances, he avoided making any comments on the current executive branch and President George W. Bush.

Law School Dean Gail Agrawal said she appreciated the way Roberts answered every question.

“I think the students asked some tough questions. The thoughtful way he answered each question taught (law students) a lot,” she said. “I think hearing him will certainly inspire law students.”

Roberts’ two-day trip to KU – the first ever by a sitting chief justice – was jointly coordinated by the business and law schools. He will speak with a variety of students and classes today.