Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s angry testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee stoked fears that his rulings would be prejudiced against Democratic lawmakers while serving on the bench. Speaking at the University of Minnesota on Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized the court's independence from the political branches, regardless of "the contentious events in Washington in recent weeks," as he put it.
"I have great respect for our public officials. After all, they speak for the people, and that commands a certain degree of humility from those of us in the judicial branch who do not,” Roberts said, per a video of his speech posted online by Politico. "We do not speak for the people, but we speak for the Constitution. Our role is very clear: We are to interpret the laws and Constitution of the United States and ensure that the political branches act within them." He added, "That job obviously requires independence from the political branches."
Roberts went on to say that without an independent SCOTUS, there would be no Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools, or West Virginia v. Barnette, a 1943 case in which the Court said the government can't force public school students to pledge allegiance to the American flag.
Though Roberts didn't mention Kavanaugh by name, he referenced his "newest colleague," who said he would not serve "one party or one interest" during his swearing-in ceremony last week, as CNN reports.
"The Supreme Court is an institution of law," Kavanaugh said in a speech the day President Donald Trump swore him in. "It is not a partisan or political institution. The Justices do not sit on opposite sides of an aisle. We do not caucus in separate rooms. The Supreme Court is a team of nine, and I will always be a team player on the team of nine."
Roberts mimicked this language on Tuesday, explaining that SCOTUS would remain independent of politics no matter what. "I want to assure all of you that we will continue to do that to the best of our abilities, whether times are calm or contentious," he told the University of Minnesota crowd. He added that his colleagues understand "the best way to do our job" is to work together in a "collegial way."
However, Roberts acknowledged that SCOTUS has occasionally "erred greatly" because justices "yielded to political pressure." He pointed to the 1944 decision in Korematsu v. U.S., which Roberts said "shamefully" allowed the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The Court specifically rebuked the Korematsu ruling in June when deciding on the Trump administration's travel ban on Muslim-majority countries (which SCOTUS allowed to partially go into effect).
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan have also spoken publicly about the Court's independence recently, though they didn't reference Kavanaugh's confirmation. Kagan told an audience at Princeton University earlier this month that SCOTUS can't become "an extension of the terribly polarized political process and environment that we live in" right now.
“This is a really divided time," Kagan continued. "Part of the Court’s strength and part of the Court’s legitimacy depends on people not seeing the court the same way they see the rest of the governing structures in the country. It’s an incredibly important thing for the Court to guard.”