WASHINGTON – Chief Justice John Roberts said Sunday he is seeking greater consensus on the Supreme Court, arguing that more consensus among justices is likely if hot-button issues are decided on the "narrowest possible grounds."
In a 15-minute address to Georgetown University law graduates, the 51-year-old chief justice — youngest in 200 years — sketched a vision for leading a court bitterly divided on issues such as abortion, the death penalty and gay rights.
He said the nation benefits if unelected justices can avoid making 5-4 decisions that have sweeping impact, noting that many of the court's most controversial decisions — from presidential wartime powers to political boundaries in Texas — will be decided in the final six weeks of the current term.
"If it is not necessary to decide more to a case, then in my view it is necessary not to decide more to a case," Roberts said. "Division should not be artificially suppressed, but the rule of law benefits from a broader agreement. The broader the agreement among the justices, the more likely it is a decision on the narrowest possible grounds."
His comments come as the court is under attack by many members of Congress, who believe the justices have overreached on decisions that struck down the death penalty for juveniles and allowed cities to seize people's homes for private economic development.
In recent weeks, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a Clinton appointee, and Antonin Scalia, a Reagan appointee, have pushed back, suggesting in speeches that Congress should mind its own business rather than seek to tell the court what to do.
Court observers have said that in his eight months as chief justice, Roberts has been most striking for fostering consensus, leading to decisions that punted a politically charged parental abortion law case from New Hampshire back to a lower court and backed out of deciding whether a campaign finance law violated free speech rights.
The tone of the court's inner workings also have changed, with less interruption of lawyers during oral arguments and more discussion among justices in closed-door conferences.
On Sunday, Roberts lightheartedly made reference to the heightened public scrutiny of the highest court. Much of it came after President Bush nominated the Harvard law graduate to be chief justice last summer and selected conservative Justice Samuel Alito to replace moderate Sandra Day O'Connor.
During his confirmation process, both conservative and liberal advocacy groups scoured Roberts' judicial record and background for evidence of his political leanings.
"Look at the graduates around you. Twenty some years from now, these are the people the press is going to track down to find something embarrassing about you," he said with a smile, as the crowd roared in response. "Today is the day to decide among yourselves, what happens at Georgetown stays at Georgetown."