Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Butler Misses Boat in Rejecting Roberts as Speaker

According to an Indianapolis Star report by Vic Ryckaert from March 13, the faculty at Butler University has voted down a student-led effort to get Chief Justice John Roberts to speak at their commencement this year. A Butler faculty member cited a long-standing tradition of avoiding "political divide" as the reason for not allowing Roberts to speak.

While I disagree with John Roberts on several of the issues on which he has ruled, Butler's faculty has deprived its student of a potentially once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the most powerful and successful people in the United States Government.

John Roberts wields the biggest gavel of the nation's biggest court. The case could be made that he is the most powerful person in government along with his or her eight colleagues on the bench. I don't need to probably run down the Supreme Court's Constitutional responsibilities for any loyal reader of this blog, but the fact that the Supreme Court is charged with reviewing decisions of the President and the Executive Branch and legislation of the Judicial Branch should be enough. Add in that pretty much any court case can end up in front of the Supreme Court and that any decision can set a precedent for decisions to come after, and it's easy to see the power of the nation's highest court.

Plus, we all know what happened with the Bush v. Gore case in 2000. Yeah, I'm still smarting from that one, too. Let's put that aside for a minute because that was the Rehnquist Court.

Theoretically, the Chief Justice is a jurist and is part of the judiciary and should not be considered a politician. Practically, we all know this is not true. Most generally, the person appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court reflects the political views of the sitting President of the United States and/or the majority party in Congress at the time of the appointment. Like his predecessor, William Rehnquist, Roberts is a conservative jurist, and that disagrees with the reported political positioning of the Butler staff.

If this is the liberal vs. conservative "political divide" that was considered in making the decision on inviting Roberts, I would offer that it's a weak foundation on which to build a case. A good friend of mine is a Democrat, and he got a chance through his job to meet Republican President George W. Bush. When he met the President, he shook his hand and thanked him for allowing him to come to the event. He said to me that there was no way he wasn't going to go because how many times do you get a chance to meet a sitting President of the United States?

Regardless of party, the President is the President, and he is your President. So, for the countless people that dress up in patriot regalia and attend tea party protests, President Barack Obama is your President. He is the leader of the country, and he should be respected as such.

The same goes for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. John Roberts is your Chief Justice, and I don't think slapping him in the face is the right thing to do. This is no different than when Arizona State University refused to offer President Obama an honorary degree and refused to have him as a speaker at its commencement. Your commencement speaker, in my view, should be someone that inspires the audience to be successful.

That would seem to me to be John Roberts. Roberts was born in New York, but his parents moved to Northern Indiana when he was just a youngster. The son of a steelworker, Roberts has had the opportunity to attend some of our greatest schools and has turned that into a highly successful career as a lawyer and a judge. Whether or not you agree with him politically would seem to be a secondary point.

Now, according to the Star, Roberts was never contacted as a possible speaker, but his niece is in the graduating class. Who knows if he would have been able to attend or would have accepted the invitation to speak? It's quite possible that this argument could have ended before it began if he was unable to speak. It just seems to me that, even as a liberal Democrat, I would have supported this measure to bring such an important person to my campus. I think the Butler faculty has done a disservice to its students by not even allowing the effort to get the Chief Justice to Indianapolis forward.

Incidentally, the speaker for commencement will be, according to the Star, Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Watkins, a Butler graduate, made headlines when she became the first female to deliver the sermon at the National Prayer Service which follows the President's inauguration on Jan. 21.


Paul K. Ogden said...

I couldn't agree more with this post. I don't care if some may not like Roberts. He's Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It is the same with Obama. If Butler gets a chance at hearing him speak, the university should go for it. He's President of the United States. It says something bad about our society that people can't sit there and show quiet respect for people who have achieved a high level of office. That doesn't mean you agree with their positions. It means you're showing respect for the office.

By the way, let's not forget tha the major legal issue in Bush v. Gore was decided by a 7-2 bipartisan vote. That key vote was that the Florida selective recount violated the U.S. Equal Protection Clause. (Gore had wanted a selective recount of certain counties which he thought would yield him the most votes...he wanted to avoid those Republican counties which would have yielded more Bush votes.) The 5-4 vote was against sending it back to redo the recount, to make it statewide. That's my memory of things.

Marycatherine Barton said...

Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have thought that Butler University's faculty would vote to deny the students the right to invite a presiding Supreme Court Judge to address their commencement. I hope that someone officially speaking for them, issues a full explanation

Anonymous said...

Graduation is not the proper forum for a divisive speaker. I respect Butler's decision.