on May 17, 2013 - 12:42 PM
JAMESTOWN – From a small front porch, on a warm, sunny day, one of Hamburg’s own stood before a crowd of more than 2,000 and, once and for all, answered the question, who can claim him as its native son?
“It’s great to be home,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts told the crowd.
Roberts, who grew up outside Buffalo, attended schools in Orchard Park and later moved to Indiana, returned to his roots Friday to honor the last Supreme Court justice to call Western New York home.
In town for the 10th anniversary of the Robert H. Jackson Center, the nation’s top judge gave the crowd of mostly students a brief history lesson on Jackson, the country lawyer turned legal giant turned war crimes prosecutor.
He spoke of Jackson’s impact on the court, despite serving only 13 years, and of his sudden and then controversial decision to leave the court to serve as chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
“He understood the gravity of his assignment,” Roberts said, “As he put it in his famous opening statement at Nuremberg, ‘We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us.’ ”
Robert’s speech, delivered 59 years to the day after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark desegregation case that became part of Jackson’s legacy, ranged from the serious to the humorous with more than a few self-deprecating references to himself and the court.
“At such a beautiful setting, on such a glorious day, it would surely be impossible for any speaker to detract from the occasion,” Roberts said. “Well, do not underestimate me.”
The chief judge didn’t stop there.
“When a judge speaks in court, he almost always disappoints half of those present,” Roberts told the gathering. “It is only on occasions such as this, outside court, that he has a fair chance of disappointing everyone.”
His talk, filled from top to bottom with references to Western New York, focused on the differences between the court Jackson served on 60 years ago and the one Roberts now heads.
He spoke of the changes in the court’s composition, most notably the addition of three women, and the ongoing rehabilitation of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, which was only six years old when Jackson took the bench in 1941.
At one point, Roberts took the crowd, which was 15-deep in spots, on a verbal tour of sorts, contrasting the life of justices then and now.
One of the few constants, he told the crowd, is the conference room where justices meet to vote on cases. He said the room remains as it was then but for one alteration – a portrait of Jackson now hanging on the wall, one of only four to adorn the room.
“His decisions reflect extraordinary insight,” Roberts said. “They are and will continue to be lodestars of jurisprudence.”
Roberts took a brief detour from his otherwise serious appraisal of Jackson’s tenure to suggest that not all the changes that have taken place since his death in 1954 have been changes he would agree with.
A case in point, he said, is the court’s public cafeteria, a place Jackson often frequented.
“What we have now are panini sandwiches and frozen yogurt,” Roberts said, and “at steeply higher prices that would certainly have offended Justice Jackson’s thrifty, Western New York sensibilities.”
He also spoke of Jackson’s love for the oral advocacy aspect of the law and his humble but sincere warnings to lawyers who appeared before the court: Don’t waste time flattering the justices.
“He noted that we justices think well enough of ourselves already,” Roberts said. “Now, I will have to leave it to others to decide whether that’s changed since Justice Jackson’s time.”
Roberts’ appearance at the Jackson Center is not the first by a Supreme Court justice.
When the center, located in an historic brick building just blocks from the city’s downtown opened, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist spoke at the event.
Rehnquist was once a law clerk to Jackson, just as Roberts clerked for Rehnquist.
It’s a thread, a connection, that people in and around this Southern Tier city have come to appreciate.
“I was privileged to be here when Sandra Day O’Connor unveiled the original statue 17 years ago,” Dudley Ericson of Lakewood said of the court’s first female justice, “and I was here for William Rehnquist 10 years ago.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Randy Anderson of Jamestown. “When you get those chances, you gotta go.”
For many of the students who attended – organizers say there were about 1,800 students from 24 area schools – it was a chance to witness history.
“It’s definitely a historical moment,” said Corrine Cardinale, a high school student from Bemus Point. “Justice Jackson was an amazing man who accomplished so many things.”
Roberts arrived in Western New York on Thursday and was greeted by about 200 guests at a dinner at the Athenaeum Hotel on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution. Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny gave the opening remarks.
After his address Friday, Roberts appeared at a private luncheon of local judges and lawyers where U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara welcomed him.
“He’s not aloof. He’s not pretentious. He’s just down to earth,” said Arcara, who had met Roberts once before. “I’ve met a lot of judges at the higher levels, and several of them, believe me, are not people you want to go out and have a beer with. This guy, you could go out and have a beer with.”
Jackson’s grandchildren ended the ceremony by presenting Roberts a life-size bronze bust of Jackson.