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?)

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.

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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