He also endorsed the decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, an observation that was greeted by applause.
Rabbi Lipson asked if being a practicing Roman Catholic affected Chief Justice Roberts’s decisions.
The chief justice said no. “When I am researching a case, I look to the Constitution,” he said. “I look to the United States Code. I look to the precedents. I don’t look to the Bible. I think that’s very important. My religion doesn’t affect my decisions.”
He added that his faith informed other aspects of his life. “I am taught to see the image and likeness of God in every person and that, I think, does cause you to look at the people — whether they are a criminal defendant in a particular case or whatever party they are — in a particular way,” he said. “But I don’t believe it affects how I decide cases.”
Chief Justice Roberts said he was not always happy with the results the law requires. “We uphold a lot of things that we don’t like,” he said, giving the example of flag burning, which he said was “a horrible thing” and was once banned in many states.
“But when that case came to the court those laws were quite comfortably — I think it was 8 to 1 or something like that — struck down as violating the First Amendment under our Constitution. People don’t necessarily feel the same way about the flag that I do, and they are entitled to express their views in the harmless way of burning the flag. So I agree with that decision, but that doesn’t mean I agree with the conduct that’s involved.”
The decision, Texas v. Johnson, in 1989, was decided by a 5 to 4 vote.
Chief Justice Roberts added that people should not expect too much of the Supreme Court. “The court’s job is to decide legal disputes under the Constitution and laws, not to cure the ills of society,” he said. “To the extent people are looking to the court they ought to be looking elsewhere.”
One of the harder parts of his job, he said, was attending State of the Union addresses, where the justices have to take pains to applaud only very occasionally. “It’s not our job to express support for particular policy initiatives,” he said. “So we do sit there like mannequins.”
He said the justices were not alone. “The Joint Chiefs of Staff are in the same position,” he said. “They’re sitting there like much better dressed mannequins.”