Chief Justice John Roberts told a gathering of lawyers and judges on Friday that pop culture references can be the perfect way to make a legal point, but they carry some risk.
Roberts, in Lancaster to address the Judicial Conference of the District of Columbia Circuit, was questioned by Chief Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, whose nomination as President Barack Obama’s pick to join Roberts on the court was scuttled last year by Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Garland asked the 62-year-old Roberts about references in oral arguments and written decisions to Spiderman, Kim Kardashian West, Dr. Seuss, NASCAR, Bob Dylan and The Clash.
“There is a real danger if you do it at oral argument, and that is that Justice Breyer might have no idea what you’re talking about,” Roberts said, drawing laughs.
Breyer himself brought up Kardashian at an argument in October, but the 78-year-old justice often reaches for less accessible cultural references.
The court has spawned its very own cultural touchstone, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has inspired the nickname Notorious RBG — although she had to have the moniker explained to her when she first heard it.
Obama nominated Garland in March 2016, a month after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, but Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate refused to consider him. Garland’s fate was sealed with President Donald Trump’s election.
Roberts served with Garland for two years on the D.C. Circuit. Although he is the leader of the judicial branch, the chief justice stayed out of the fight over Garland’s nomination.
Garland asked Roberts about a long-term decline in the number of cases the high court hears.
The lack of a ninth justice until April, when Justice Neil Gorsuch joined the court, forced the short-handed court to avoid contentious issues that might have produced ties votes. The justices also heard just 64 cases over nine months, part of a slow, steady decline in their caseload.
The court this week ended its term without any of the high-profile cases that have marked its calendar in recent years.
Roberts said they are capable of “comfortably” handling about 100 cases, and he’s not sure why the number isn’t higher.
“To some extent, it’s a great mystery, and many of us would like to see more cases come, but they’re really just not there,” Roberts said.
Roberts said one aspect of his job he greatly enjoys has been the chief justice’s status as chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington’s vast network of museums and research facilities.
It’s “liberating” when others on the Board of Regents don’t expect him to have expertise in the often arcane matters the Smithsonian has to deal with, Roberts said.
“It’s also very valuable, you know, when a panda is born — because you get to go see it right away,” he said.
As for his summer book and movie plans, Roberts said he recently became a fan of the “Very Short Introductions” series by Oxford University Press, small primers on an eclectic range of topics.
He said he also hopes to go see “Dunkirk” once it’s released.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.