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Chief Justice John Roberts speaks on diversity, consensus

May 25, 2016

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said Wednesday that building a consensus among the justices is important, although he admits he can’t do it on his own.

Roberts’ comments at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia come as the justices have struggled to reach decisions in several cases this term with the court split evenly between conservative and liberal members. The court has had eight members since the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

“I try to achieve as much consensus as I can,” Roberts said. “We kind of have to have a commitment as a group. I think we spend a fair amount of time — maybe a little more than others in the past — talking about things, talking them out. It sometimes brings you a bit closer together.

“But it’s been subject to some criticism that you can put things off and you can say ‘well, let’s not deal with this issue. Then maybe in five years we’ll get another case if we have to.’ And some people think that’s bad. I think it has something to do with judicial philosophy. I think we should be as restrained in when we decide the issues when it’s necessary to do so. I think that’s part of how I look at the job.”

Last week the court dodged the legal issues in a challenge from faith-based groups over the federal health care law’s birth control requirements.

Roberts also was asked about the diversity of the court. An audience member noted the current justices were products of the same few law schools. Roberts, who attended Harvard’s law school, said that was “unfortunate.”

Last week, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump proposed a list of potential Supreme Court nominees to fill Scalia’s seat if he’s elected to the White House. Trump’s list included a more diverse group of judges from a range of law schools and states.

President Barack Obama has nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s seat, but Republicans in Congress have vowed not to hold hearings or a confirmation vote until a new president takes office.

Speaking on a question about the religious backgrounds of the current justices, Roberts said, “I’m certainly not seeing any evidence of that as making an impact. I haven’t seen any sign that that’s affecting how we do our business.”

Roberts’ talk at a conference of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was filled with lighthearted moments. Asked by appeals Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson to name a satisfying accomplishment in his decade as chief justice, Roberts joked, “serving for 10 years.”

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