In a famous interview with Jeff Rossen, Chief Justice Roberts explained his view of the Supreme Court as an “institution.” That is, the Court should not only be focused on deciding individual cases, but also view how it fits into the broader scheme of the separation of powers.
“If the Court in Marshall’s era had issued decisions in important cases the way this Court has over the past thirty years, we would not have a Supreme Court today of the sort that we have,” he said. “That suggests that what the Court’s been doing over the past thirty years has been eroding, to some extent, the capital that Marshall built up.” Roberts added, “I think the Court is also ripe for a similar refocus on functioning as an institution, because if it doesn’t it’s going to lose its credibility and legitimacy as an institution.”
It is perhaps this desire to think of the Court as an institution that led the Chief to voting the way he did in NFIB v. Sebelius, and his desire to promote a faux-unanimity in several cases last term.
In particular, Roberts declared, he would make it his priority, as Marshall did, to discourage his colleagues from issuing separate opinions. “I think that every justice should be worried about the Court acting as a Court and functioning as a Court, and they should all be worried, when they’re writing separately, about the effect on the Court as an institution.”
The Chief is not alone with this feeling. In recent remarks at Yale Law School, Justice Sotomayor explained that her greatest surprise upon joining the Court was her recognition of the importance of this institution, as a force greater than herself.
I was surprised by all of this as well. But for me, the tradition had one positive effect. It taught me that the Court as an institution was much more important than I was an individual Justice. That is a really important lesson for Justices to learn and live by. Sometimes the tradition is a little silly.
Although, Justice Sotomayor seems to draw a different conclusion, and is quite more likely than the Chief to issue separate opinions.