John Roberts is smart, civil, and strategic. Is he a good chief justice?

John Roberts Is Smart, Civil, and Strategic. Is He a Good Chief Justice?

John Roberts Is Smart, Civil, and Strategic. Is He a Good Chief Justice?

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 1 2013 5:34 PM

Smart, Civil, Strategic

Emily Bazelon chats with readers about the NSA, the Supreme Court, and what makes a good chief justice.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Nominee John Roberts answers questions on his fourth and final day of his testimony in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee September 15, 2005 in Washington, DC.
Does John Roberts' craftiness make him a good chief justice?

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Slate senior editor and Sticks and Stones author Emily Bazelon took to Reddit to answer reader questions on Monday. This transcript has been edited for clarity. The full AMA is here. Emily, John Dickerson, and David Plotz will be taking part in a live taping of the Political Gabfest on July 10 in Chicago. Get tickets here.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

MichaelDoyleDC: I am curious about your assessment of Chief Justice Roberts. He strikes me as a superb chief: smart, civil and strategic. What do you think?

Emily Bazelon: I think all of those adjective apply. Also, stealthy and incremental. He is moving the court far to the right one step at a time. So, for example, in his opinion on the Voting Rights Act last week, striking down Section 5, he cited his own 2009 ruling calling the act's constitutionality into question 37 times, by my count. First, lay the groundwork, then it looks much better when you invalidate a huge law passed by Congress only seven years ago with overwhelming support. Which brings me back to your first word: smart.

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Krispykrackers: What do you feel is the most important issue to solve regarding civil liberties?

Emily Bazelon: I think the most important thing, or at least the obvious first issue to address, is the degree of secrecy around data mining and wiretapping. If we don't know what's happening, how can we decide whether we're OK with it?

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Krispykrackers: Where do you feel is the line, if there is one, between transparency and actually doing things in secret to protect our people? Like, would it make more sense for them to say "Hey guys, we may or may not listen to your phone calls and read your emails," or does that just negate any sort of good information they're trying to weed out because people with an agenda would find other ways to communicate amongst each other?

Emily Bazelon: I think we could have public access to FISA court orders, as some members of Congress have called for. Even if they were redacted, that would help. And I think the tech companies should be able to tell us the number of requests they get from the NSA specifically and how many users are involved. Those are two starting points that come to mind. But you know, the hard thing about it is that people in the government can always say, “if you were on the inside, you'd know why X and Y wouldn't work.” And it's very hard to refute that.

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thejoshwhite: I wanted to know if you've noticed that when people don't like a Supreme Court decision they are more likely to mention that the justices are "unelected." I wish everyone would remember that that is the point. Also, is there anything that you'd change about how the court works? (Term limits, for example?)

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Emily Bazelon: Yes, that first point is astute. Of course none of the justices are elected but pointing it out is often about delegitimizing them. I do think it's a valid critique to make when they are overriding an act of Congress. And yes, I am in favor of term limits. I'd do 18 years given my druthers.

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lawyerlee: Given the limitations on what can be revealed about the usefulness of information obtained by the NSA, do you think we'll ever really know if Edward Snowden did the right thing?

I'm torn between respecting that he believes he was revealing something we all needed to know and thinking he revealed nothing we didn't already know and, as a result, violated his obligations for nothing.

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Emily Bazelon: I think Snowden did the right thing because I think we're better off knowing what he has revealed. I know the government says he has seriously damaged national security, but the revelations are broad enough that it's hard for me to credit that claim. I guess I just wonder how many serious terrorists were using these major social media and websites.

That said, I agree that it will take years to know how to think of Snowden as a historical figure. Will he be remembered as an irresponsible maverick, or as someone with Daniel Ellsberg's stature? In his own moment, Ellsberg was vilified and faced serious charges. Those were thrown out because the Nixon administration overreached. I wonder if we'd think of Ellsberg with respect now if he'd become a convicted criminal. I don't think the U.S. has much of a tradition of respecting people who go to prison.

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karibaumann: I loved last week's episode of the Gabfest, but I was sorry that there was so much other news that you couldn't talk about the adoption case that SCOTUS decided. Did you agree with the decision? (You should do your own SCOTUS explainer podcast on weeks like that!)

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Emily Bazelon: In short, heartbreaking case, no clear answer. But I do think Alito and the majority got it right, as right as it could be got. They read an ambiguous statute in a way that I think is more likely to prevent more cases like this. They couldn't talk about the best interests of the child explicitly, because that's not in the Indian Child Welfare Act. But I read them as thinking about how to prevent more children from being taken from the only parents they've known at the age of 2—that's how old Veronica was. I don't mean to imply, though, that at this point Veronica should be taken from her birth father. He has had her from age 2 to age 3½. If he's a good parent, in the eyes of the judge who will have to wade back into this, then it's probably better for her to stay.

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trward: When do you think that the public will be able to at least have live audio (if not full video) of the Supreme Court rulings? The current method seems so elitist/archaic. Is there any rational reason for how things are now? Aren't they getting tired of the Scotusblog people running in and out the whole time to deliver updates?

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Emily Bazelon: Gah, I could really start ranting about this—you've hit me in a sore spot. It drives me crazy that the court won't at least do live audio. I mean they should do video, too, but at least they should start with audio. Especially since waiting in line for tickets for the general public has turned into this ridiculous farce of people paying other people to stand in line for them. What a racket, and so undemocratic. The court should be ashamed of itself on this front.

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architect_son: Concerning the mining of people's personal information, isn't the NSA openly doing what a ton of other corporations and other governments are already doing? Further, when individuals have willingly given out their personal information, is it an outside entity's fault for obtaining information that individuals so willingly give?

Emily Bazelon: The NSA, yes, is mining data that corporations mine, i.e. the tech companies. But the tech companies can't charge us with crimes, right? So for the government to do it is different. The potential for abuse is higher. I think there's a distinction here about types of info and what people put out publicly versus what they have a reasonable expectation of privacy for. It's one thing to assume that anything you post on Twitter or Facebook is public. I think that's the wise approach to take. But your email inbox? I think most of us assume that what we are writing on Gmail, etc, is not available for public consumption.

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nobodypopular: I’m a longtime listener to the Gabfest and huge fan. The rapport between the three of you is always entertaining. I'd like to know your first impressions of both David and John upon meeting them for the first time? Any funny stories there?

Emily Bazelon: I love David and John dearly—it's really an enormous well of affection we've built over the years, at least to me, and I can't really think of anything they could do to change that.

First impressions: I was hired at Slate by Jacob Weisberg, who works in New York, and then I moved to D.C. to work out of the Slate D.C. office, which David ran (at the time he was Slate's deputy editor). So it was like Jacob had sent David this person he hadn't hired and had never met. I remember we walked to lunch in the cold, and he was wearing this funny knit blue wool hat and clearly kind of skeptical of me. I could tell he was super smart and also argumentative and quirky. David is pretty much always himself, in my experience.

John and I started in the D.C. office in the same month, so we were like newbie buddies. And at the time the office was like a semi-respectable frat house for geeks. No art on the walls except a poster or two tacked up, and old filing cabinets, and a really gross fridge. So we bonded over laughing about all of that.

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deepwank: I generally enjoy your judicial analyses and your appearances on Colbert, though I feel you should be a bit more aggressive to say what you came there to say. My question is about the eventual challenge to America's polygamy and group marriage laws. If there is no limitation on the gender of those involved in a federally recognized marriage, then there logically should be no limitation on the number of those committing to the marriage. How do you see this challenge developing in the court systems and what are the strongest legal arguments for and against polygamy?

Emily Bazelon: It's hard to be aggressive on Colbert, but good to push me to try! The strongest argument for legalizing polygamy is that there's no rational basis for prohibiting it: just adults consensually choosing a different household arrangement. The strongest argument against is that polygamy harms women and children because there are higher rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and child abuse. I don't think that's the case in all polygamous communities, but I think there's some evidence of that in the patriarchal ones. The state needs a rational basis to pass a law against polygamy. Greater harm would count I think.