Chief Justice John Roberts Legal Opinions

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Chief Justice John Roberts has written many legal opinions for our nation’s most influential court of law.  But his most important opinion may be gleaned from his comments concerning what really matters in the court of life.

Chief Justice Roberts was asked to give the commencement address at his son’s elite middle school a few years ago.  His remarks, however, were those of a father whose career was made better and fuller because of his insights about life’s experiences. They were meant to be travelling companions for these elite students at a formative age.

Here is some of what he told these students.

  1. It is not a bad thing to be treated unfairly.  It is hard in life to develop any humility and respect for others if you look down on anybody.  If you are ever judged harshly for an arbitrary reason, you will do better when you are judging others.
  2. Betrayal.  If you experience the full of life, you may be betrayed at some time in some way, small or large. But it will help you to learn the importance of loyalty and standing your ground when others walk away.
  3. Loneliness.  We are all lonely, just at different times, and about different things.  Make friends and check in with them when you sense they need to hear from a friend.
  4. Bad luck is inevitable in life.  It helps to teach you that some of life is random.
  5. Failure. You may fail at something, which will help you understand success in another important part of your life. And how you came to find it.
  6. The value of being, at times, the butt of ridicule.
  7. Appreciate the value of being ignored for an arbitrary reason at some point in your life.

Chief Justice Roberts had some other insights as well.  The thread running through nearly all of them is how important it is to develop a finely tuned sense of humility in life.

The students graduating to high school that commencement day were young men of extraordinary privilege.  Every one of them would likely achieve significant financial and professional success. The opinion rendered that day by John Roberts, however, was less about making a living than about making a life, to hitch a ride on Winston Churchill’s keen and experienced observation. Because when they became the deciders, in time, they would be better equipped to see people and circumstances through life’s most important sight line: thoughtful, humble and measured perspective.

These days we seem to be falling into a pattern of meanness, and reason and a fundamental respect for others are often its casualties. Humility does not seem to be much of a calibrating influence, because you and I know what we know, thank you very much. Strong opinions are used more like a club at times than as a pathway to a more reasoned view of things. And they often value little, or not at all, this balancing notion that despite your intellect and strength of your own opinion, there is a chance you may be wrong. Politics, and who did/caused what regarding the Coronavirus and its accompanying turmoil, are but two of the most recent iterations of these Crossfire-like discussions.

What’s the answer?
Part of it may rest in an observation a good friend of mine, who was a football referee for the ACC for many years, about how referees are trained to make better decisions. But the application of this pretty straightforward test makes a lot of sense in most of our lanes of life, too.

I asked him one time if referees get reprimanded if they make a bad call, after the supervisors have reviewed the recording of the previous game.  He said they are not generally reprimanded for making a mistake.  They are reprimanded if they are not where their training says they should be, and they are not able to see the play clearly.  That’s the key question.  Were you where you needed to be to see the play clearly? If you are, you are less likely to make a bad call.

I have always thought this story provides a helpful metaphor when I try to grade my own conduct and response to events. Stubborn ego, volatile emotions such as arrogance and pride, and our own private room of life’s other accumulated insecurities, keep folks like you and me, despite our level of education and intelligence, from seeing things clearly.

This is why this trait of humility, which is such a leveler of these proverbial logs in our eye, is so important.  The winning bet is almost always on a smart, thoughtful and experienced person who has the confidence in themselves to know at times they just might be wrong about an issue. Or, that there is a little wrong or right on both sides.  The most thoughtful ones among us carry this humility, a sort of double vision, really, to seek out that best place to see the play clearly.  And to find that a measured and even sight line can lead to a truly balanced perspective, and maybe even more.

It is not a coincidence that some of the best deciders, and the most talented people, intellectually and otherwise, are the ones who are often reluctant to be the first voice to speak up on issues. Variations on the sage advice to listen first before you speak, which have been around since the days of the ancient prophets and Shakespeare, might be advice worth taking, after all, even though you believe you may have the best answer.  Maybe there is a lesson here that the decider who knows from their long experience they are often the most spot-on thinker waits to hear what other people have to say. (And maybe that’s how they became the most spot-on thinker.)  There is a stronger connection than you may think between humble listening and learning, rather than assuming you know more than you know. Take it from one who has observed others bump into the hard corners of this reality (and who has bumped into those hard corners himself from time to time.)

A case in point.
When I graduated from law school years ago, I was privileged to serve as a law clerk to a justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court. It was a humbling experience, because as a law clerk I saw on the front end of my career the writings and oral arguments of the best legal minds in North Carolina, and often in the nation.

My judge was assigned to write the opinion for a challenging utilities rate case which came before the court. The case involved a rate increase application of a well-known utility.  The challenge was the utility had a recent history of poor service. Could the utility’s (constitutionally protected) fair rate of return be modified if the utility was consistently not rendering fair value to its customers?

Several groups and organizations not parties to the litigation filed separate briefs because of the importance of the issues in this case.  (Amicus Curiae briefs, which means “Friends of the Court.” We lawyers like to talk in Latin as often as we can.) None of these highly regarded lawyers had addressed the defining issue in over five hundred pages of briefs.  My judge wanted to know if any other jurisdiction had ever ruled that the constitutionally protected rate could be lowered marginally because of the failure of the utility to render good service over a rather long period of time to its customers.

After much research (“pulling down the books,” as lawyers did before most court opinions were published on line, with word/phrase search engines ), I found/stumbled upon two cases on point, both of which held that a utility’s rate of return could be lowered somewhat because of its failure to deliver satisfactory service over a long period of time.  The most persuasive opinion was written by a well-known judge in another jurisdiction, but a judge who had a judicial philosophy quite different from my judge.

Here is the great learning experience of my time as a law clerk to the Supreme Court of North Carolina: my judge, who had the intellect and the confidence in his own opinion that went along with it,  said that the opinion of this other judge was well-reasoned. My judge said he did not care much for this judge’s overall judicial philosophy, but the other judge answered this thorny legal question thoughtfully, and correctly, in this opinion.

This opinion was cited by my judge as persuasive on the issue in his draft opinion, and it was adopted by the full court. It remains established law in North Carolina.

The practical lesson to me about this experience, with the intellectual balance demonstrated by my judge, is one I have tried to carry to this day:  Someone with whom you have a fundamental difference on certain values and philosophies (including political/ shelter-in-place opinions) may have the right sight line on an individual issue, after all. And to gain that right sight line to see the matter clearly, we would do well to carry with us that core value of humility my judge demonstrated in this important utilities law decision, and which Chief Justice Roberts urged those young men on that long-ago commencement day to remember throughout their lives.

Here is what I have learned about life on the way to the courthouse: Humility is such a different in-kind value.  It is this sense of humility which runs through the core of many of these insights by John Roberts.  And of my judge, too. For all their intellect, they sought to find that place where they could more clearly see the play, even if it was different than their initial view of the matter.

We do not have to be a supreme court justice, or a decider-in-waiting at an elite private school, to understand in our lane of life as a decider the importance of humility, balance, and a measured view of our own opinions. Very few decisions or comments, including comments about politics and pandemics, driven to the edges of available options by stridency, ego or largely anecdotal one-time personal experiences, take us to the best place. And just calling those decisions and comments every time we have a disagreement with someone a stand on principle does not make all of them so, does it?

If two brilliant justices, with well–known judicial philosophies, can see things through the lens of humility, and acknowledge from time to time that maybe their general opinion of things may not carry the day on a particular issue, don’t you think you and I should, too?

Mike Wells