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US Chief Justice and Victoria University Law School Dean discuss 'law'

28 July 2017

The Chief Justice of the United States, the Honourable John G Roberts Jr. was recently at Victoria University’s Law School to teach a course about the history of the United States Supreme Court.

He was working alongside Professor Richard J. Lazarus of Harvard University.

On Wednesday night [27 July] he spoke with Professor Mark Hickford, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law at Victoria University, in front of a crowd that included members of the legal fraternity, public sector leaders, law students and alumni.

When asked about the key challenges facing the United States Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts pointed to the fast pace of technological advancement.

“We recently had a question about accessing an iPhone, whether the Fourth Amendment [against unreasonable searches and seizures] would apply to that.

“I think the court correctly and unanimously determined that it did, because ask anyone here. Would you rather have law enforcement rummaging through your desk drawer at home or rummaging through your iPhone? There’s much more private information on your iPhone than in your desk drawers, so the Fourth Amendment should apply, but that was a challenging question,” he said.

He also said the United States was experiencing 'a bit of a rocky road' in that the judicial process had become overly politicised.

“It didn’t used to be that way. I think there’s a lack of understanding on what sort of things people should be looking at when they’re deciding who should be a Judge. Judges are not politicians and so they shouldn’t be scrutinised as if they were. You’re not electing a representative so you’re not entitled to know what their views on political issues are,” he said.

When asked whether New Zealand should adopt a written constitution, he declined to offer advice, but explained the importance and relevance of the constitution in relation to the United States.

“The framers of our constitution hoped they were drafting a document that would withstand the test of time and they used in many instances very broad, capacious terms.

“On the other hand, they can be specific guides to what you’re supposed to look at, and in some cases quite narrow and confining.”

During the conversation, Professor Hickford mentioned surveys showing the lack of name recognition of Supreme Court Justices among the general public and asked how he felt about that.

Chief Justice Roberts joked that “Judge Judy always finishes first”, but said that this didn’t bother him.

“We’re not politicians. It’s not a great disappointment to us when people don’t recognise us,” he said.

Chief Justice Roberts also offered some advice to Victoria students about to embark on a legal career.

“If you want to have a successful career as a lawyer, try to keep in mind why you went to law school,” he said.

He said law school, and law as a profession, can lead in many different directions.

“I would advise current students or recent students to keep thinking about why they wanted to be a lawyer in the first place.

“It’s easier to be a success if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, it’s very hard to be a success if you’re not,” Chief Justice Roberts said.

A video of the discussion between Professor Hickford and Justice Roberts can be viewed here. A warning, some of the audio does vary in quality.

Last updated on the 16th September 2019