Chief Justice John Roberts speaks in Middlebury

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(Host) The Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, was in Vermont on Tuesday.

Roberts spent time with students at Middlebury College and met with federal judges, the Governor and members of the Vermont Supreme Court.

At days end, he addressed a full house at Middlebury’s Mead Memorial Chapel.

VPR’s Steve Zind was there.

(Demonstrators chanting)

(Zind) The long line formed early. A group of demonstrators chanted outside, and at one point the Jimi Hendrix version of the Star Spangled Banner blared from a nearby college window as the crowd filed in under the chapels arched ceiling.

Roberts was in Middlebury to help inaugurate a new professorship named for his predecessor, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Roberts clerked for Rehnquist in the early 1980s and in his remarks, he remembered the late Chief Justice with obvious fondness.

Roberts said many places could lay claim to Rehnquist but Vermont was where he came for renewal and reflection. Rehnquist had a summer home in Greensboro.

Roberts also praised Rehnquist for bringing, in his words, more rigor and focus to the court during his long tenure.

(Roberts) “Forty years ago, just before the chief went on the court, legal arguments were more free ranging, more free wheeling. When he left the court, they were more about law, as I think arguments in the court should be.”

(Zind) After his remarks, Roberts spent a fair amount of time fielding questions from audience members. They ranged from the role of doubt in the deliberations of the justices, to whether the job of a Supreme Court justice is a cushy one.

Roberts deftly avoided being drawn in by political or prejudicial comments. He explained that even the highest court in the nation can and should have limited powers under our system of checks and balances.

(Roberts) “I am conscious every day as I go about my work, for example, that nobody has elected me to anything. And if people don’t like what I do, there’s not much they can do about it. When I see folks across the street in Congress, I am very aware of the fact that thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people have voted for them.”

(Zind) Roberts says it’s unfortunate that people expect the Supreme Court to become involved in decisions that he feels should be resolved by elected representatives.

He believes that in coming years, the central issue the court will be asked to confront is the impact of technology on established law.

(Roberts) “You have now devices that can see through walls. Is that a violation of privacy if law enforcement is using that to see who’s inside? DNA testing: Let’s say you have a small town, there’s some crime committed and you know that it was somebody in this town. Does law enforcement have the authority to require DNA testing to find out who it is? I think across the board, new technology is going to challenge the established legal rules.”

(Zind) Roberts says as Chief Justice he hopes to bring a greater degree of coherence and consensus to the court’s opinions and move away from an increasing tendency for justices to issue their own separate opinions when rulings are made.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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