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The Interview: Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.

September 14 , 2006
Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Wide World)
Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Wide World)

Scholastic News: Why was the Constitution considered such a remarkable revolutionary document when it was written more than 200 years ago? Was there anything like it before in human history?

Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.: The people who wrote our Constitution recognized that those who governed countries—typically kings and queens, up to that time—often abused their power, so that the people suffered. The drafters of our Constitution had themselves been the victims of such abuse of power by King George III. So they took the revolutionary step in the Constitution of dividing power among the different branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—so that no one would have unchecked power that they might abuse. Ideas along these lines had been talked about before, but our Constitution was the first to put them into practice by setting out written rules establishing a new government.

SN: What about the Constitution gives it the longevity to remain relevant after 219 years?

Chief Justice Roberts: Our Constitution, adopted almost 220 years ago, on September 17, 1787, is the oldest written constitution of any nation in the world. It is not very long—seven short sections, called “Articles,” plus 27 Amendments—but it lays out the structure, powers, and limitations of our government. One of the reasons it has remained relevant for such a long time is that it can be changed, or amended. For instance, under the original Constitution, slavery was allowed in the United States. After the Civil War, in December 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified, making slavery illegal everywhere in the United States. Another example is that when our Constitution was adopted, women were not allowed to vote. It was not until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, that all states were required to allow women to vote.

SN: How does the Constitution work in the lives of ordinary Americans today?

Chief Justice Roberts: By ensuring that no one in government has too much power, the Constitution helps protect ordinary Americans every day against abuse of power by those in authority. The Constitution gives those who serve in public office the authority they need to govern effectively, to protect Americans from the threats we face in the world today, and to promote policies to make our lives better. At the same time, the Constitution limits the power of public officials and safeguards the rights of Americans, to secure the blessings of liberty for us all.

SN: How does the Constitution affect the lives of kids?

Chief Justice Roberts: There is no better gift a society can give children than the opportunity to grow up safe and free—the chance to pursue whatever dreams they may have. Our Constitution guarantees that freedom.

SN: Why do you think it’s important for children to learn about the Constitution? What is the most important thing kids should know about the Constitution?

Chief Justice Roberts: A document written long before the invention of the automobile, the airplane, the computer, and the Internet may seem so old that students might think that they today don’t need to know about it. But our Constitution will only work if people learn about it and actively participate in our democratic form of government. You can’t fight for your rights if you don’t know what they are. And you can’t participate in our democracy if you don’t know how it works. I think the most important thing children should know about our Constitution is that it applies to them, just like school rules apply to them. If children do not understand the Constitution, they cannot understand how our government functions, or what their rights and responsibilities are as citizens of the United States.

SN: At what age did you first become interested in and realize the importance of the Constitution? What was that experience like?

Chief Justice Roberts: In grade school I learned about how our government was organized – how we had local, state, and federal government offices; how the Constitution divided power among the different branches so that the President, Congress, and the courts shared authority; and how the Constitution protected the liberty of every individual. Learning about that helped me understand what it was we celebrated every year on the Fourth of July – the freedom we as Americans enjoy and have defended over the years.

SN: As an interpreter of the Constitution, where do you go for guidance and information on the document?

Chief Justice Roberts: I have a copy of the Constitution on my desk and the first thing I do when I have a case involving the Constitution is read what it says. I also have a copy of the Federalist Papers – a series of essays by the Founding Fathers that helps explain what the Constitution means. For over two hundred years, the Supreme Court has been interpreting the Constitution by writing papers, called “opinions,” in individual cases. Those opinions say what the Court has decided and explain what particular parts of the Constitution mean. Every one of the Court’s opinions is published in a book. All of those books of opinions together take up almost 100 hundred feet of space. I will go and find previous opinions of the Court that have interpreted the part of the Constitution at issue in a particular case, and I will read those opinions.

SN: Briefly describe how your role as Chief Justice differs from that of an Associate Justice.

Chief Justice Roberts: As Chief Justice I have one vote, just like every Associate Justice. So I really do not have much greater authority than anyone else on the Court. One thing I do get to do is decide who should write the opinion of the Court, explaining why we decided a case the way we did. I get to do that whenever my vote is with a majority of the Justices. I also have the responsibility to make sure the Court runs smooth—that we get the decisions out on time.

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