I missed the broadcast earlier this week, but Jan Crawford Greenburg, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, is now covering the Supreme Court for ABC, and interviewed Chief Justice John Roberts for Nightline (video link here). Not much substance was covered in the interview—the Chief must be circumspect about cases, after all—but this interesting exchange occurred:
Greenburg: You write your opinions on the computer?
Roberts: No, I don’t.
Greenburg: By hand?
Robert: By hand. Yeah.
Greenburg: All of your drafts? Or . . .
Roberts: Yes. All by hand. I don’t type on the computer or edit.
It reminded me of Daniel Webster’s remark about Chief Justice John Marshall, that he “always wrote with a quill. He never adopted the barbarous invention of steel pens.”
Seriously, while many of us who worked by hand when we were younger now feel comfortable drafting at the computer, Roberts’s old-fashioned habit is reassuring not only for what it says about his instinctively conservative turn of mind (an apolitical virtue in judges), but what it very probably says about how his chambers operate. If nothing issues from the Chief as a draft opinion that is not in his hand, then the chances are very slim that his clerks are contributing very much to opinion drafting—since the Chief would presumably want to copy those contributions into his own drafts by hand, an annoyingly painstaking task that he would no doubt try to keep to a minimum. The less his clerks contribute to the language of his opinions’ texts, the more the Chief will keep doing his own thinking.
Maybe he should have all computers removed from the desks of the justices. There is no evidence that judicial craftsmanship has been improved by them, is there?