TROY, N.Y. — The “partisan hostility” surrounding the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch is of concern because it could undermine public confidence in the apolitical nature of the judicial system, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday at a college appearance in upstate New York.
The appearance a day after Gorsuch was sworn in by President Donald Trump at the White House was billed as a conversation with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson. Jackson talked with Roberts onstage before about 1,200 students, faculty and guests, some of whom asked him questions.
“The Supreme Court currently does operate in a highly political environment, one that some feel has come about because of the refusal of the U.S. Senate to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat that opened up after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia,” Jackson said.
After most Democrats refused to support Gorsuch, Republicans resorted to using the “nuclear option” to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold for Gorsuch and all future high court nominees. But Roberts said the political turmoil didn’t carry over to the court’s work.
“We in the judiciary do not do our business in a partisan, ideological manner,” Roberts said. “The new justice is not a Republican or a Democrat; he’s a member of the Supreme Court. But it’s hard for people to understand that when they see the process that leads up to it.”
Of Gorsuch’s nomination and its possible effect on the public he said, “That partisan hostility is a matter of great concern.” Roberts added it could undermine the public’s appreciation of the non-partisan nature of the judicial system.
A student asked if the makeup of the court should reflect the diversity of groups in society.
“It’s important to have a broad range of different experiences and interests represented, but it should never get to the position where you have identity politics coming into the court,” Roberts said. “It’s not our job to represent the people of the United States. Our job is to interpret the law to the best of our ability.”
Asked how the court maintained an atmosphere of collegiality despite differing opinions on hotly contested issues, Roberts said he strictly enforces rules when the judges dine together. “There’s no talking about business. We talk about books, opera, baseball, children. We get to know each other pretty well,” Roberts said.
“We hope we’re serving with Justice Gorsuch for the next 25 years,” Roberts said. “It’s kind of like a marriage. If you’re going to be with someone that long, you can’t have knock-down, drag-out fights over a case.”
Roberts was nominated as chief justice by President George W. Bush in 2005 after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist.