In an unusual and lively talk, Roberts revealed his deep understanding of the court's history but also his thoughts on the role of the chief justice, its limits and opportunities for leadership, and why no one on the current court will ever run for president.
The talk was sponsored by the Historical Society of the New York Courts and the subject was Charles Evans Hughes, a man who began his career in politics, served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, left for a failed bid for the presidency and then eventually returned as chief justice in 1930. Hughes guided the court through the tumultuous days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's controversial court-packing plan.
"It fell to Hughes," Roberts said, "to guide a very unpopular Supreme Court through that high noon showdown against America's most popular president since George Washington."
Roberts added that former President Theodore Roosevelt referred to Hughes and his elegant bushy beard as a "bearded iceberg."
After a brief presentation and slide show, Roberts sat for questions with Judge Robert A. Katzmann, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Asked what he admired about Hughes leadership style, Roberts pointed to how "in a quiet way" he was "very effective in promoting collegiality."
"He presided over a sharply divided court," Roberts said, adding that the justices at the time didn't always get along.
While Hughes couldn't "enforce collegiality," Roberts said he admired the fact that "he set a priority in making sure people disagreed without being disagreeable."
He added that there are opportunities as a chief justice to lead. "Somebody does have to moderate the discussion," he said. "Somebody does have to do what they can to maintain order and decorum during arguments ... somebody does have to represent the institution to the outside world and to the other political branches."
At one point, Katzmann asked Roberts directly if he thought being a chief justice gave him an opportunity for leadership.
Roberts responded that leadership on the court is an "unusual concept." On one hand, he said, "I have the same vote as everybody else." He referred to his colleagues and added to laughter, "I can't fire them if I disagree with them and I can't even dock their pay."
He also noted that other justices on the court show leadership.
"Justice Scalia has been on the court for 30 years. That makes him a leader in terms of where the court has been, how it has operated. To some extent, he has more leadership authority when it comes to tenure on the court and what that entails than I do," Roberts said. He noted that Justice Anthony Kennedy has also served for more than 25 years.
"There are different sources of leadership on a collegial body like the Supreme Court, and there is only so much that the office of chief justice confers," Roberts added.
Roberts was quick to draw a contrast between the court during Hughes' day and the current court.
Katzmann asked how a man like Hughes could leave the court, after his first nomination, to run for president. "The court was a different place. Presidential elections were different, but the court was a different place as well," Roberts said, adding that in Hughes' time, the court consisted of senators, representatives and former attorneys general. With the exception of Elena Kagan, today's court consists of all former appellate court judges.
"So it's more the nature of the change, I think, in the court that explains why I can safely say none of us are going to be running for president." Then, he added to laughter, "I should only speak for myself."
In the question and answer session, Roberts steered clear away from any kind of questions concerning his legacy.
"I think about the cases scheduled for the next sitting, the Monday after Thanksgiving, not much beyond that." he said.
Wrapping up the discussion, Katzmann praised Roberts for devoting so much time to Hughes, giving the current chief justice an opportunity to point out one glaring difference between him and his predecessor.
"Well," Roberts quipped, "I'm not going to grow a beard."