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Words Used to Mean Things

Stop Calling Him “Justice Roberts”

by SAM HUSSEINI

One of my favorite poems by Rumi is “Who says words with my mouth?” It can most obviously be read as a meditation on the self, the soul and free will.

But too often this question can be directly answered in our time: the major media, the political establishment they are intertwined with and all who thoughtlessly echo them — that is who puts words in people’s mouths that are endlessly parroted.

Case in point is how so many call John Roberts “Justice John Roberts.” Even discounting one’s views on Roberts, this is a particularly misguided use of title and convention since Roberts himself has said before and since getting on the court that “justice” is not the job of the “Chief Justice.”

I first heard Roberts say this just after Roberts was nominated to the court by George W. Bush in the summer of 2005. C-Span Radio broadcast a talk Roberts gave at Georgetown University in 1997. He tells a story of “Justice Holmes, when he was getting out of a carriage and going up to the court to do his work, a person yelled out after him ‘Do justice!’ Quite angry, he turned around and said ‘That’s not my job!’ And it very much is not the job of the Supreme Court.” [Clip; full video, (at about 10:30 mark)].

Still, in the Nation, Eric Alterman writes of “The Roberts Court’s Stealth Campaign Against a Free Press,” but the prefix “Justice” remains fixed to Roberts’ name — no matter how nefarious his actions. Similarly, David H. Gans in the New Republic asserts in “The Roberts Court Thinks Corporations Have More Rights Than You Do“ that “Chief Justice Roberts has opened new fronts in his First Amendment revolution.” And David McCabe in the Huffington Post writes a piece titled “Chamber Of Commerce Emerges As Big Supreme Court Winner” that states: “Under Chief Justice John Roberts … the Supreme Court has been far more likely to issue a ruling favorable to the chamber than the court was under his immediate predecessors, according to the [Constitutional Accountability Center's] analysis.”

I wrote the piece “Why Is Everyone Still Calling Him ”Justice” Roberts?” shortly after the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling in which the Supreme Court struck down overall limits on campaign donations making this argument. As if to highlight how difficult it is to break out of calcified habits, an editor at the website that published the piece initially ran a caption calling him ”Justice John Roberts” — overlooking the basic premise of the piece (this was later dropped).

It becomes a world of dead-eyed, “Hollow Men” when words we say — including the most profound words like justice — are used as mere formalisms, with the meaning emptied out of them. In Robert’s entire talk he comes off more at times an expert clerk than as one aspiring to be in any way the Embodiment of Justice. What does it say about our society and major institutions that the man referred to as “Chief Justice” doesn’t think that’s his job?

We should add the honorific “justice” for those on the courts to the list of words like “defense” — as in “Department of Defense” — that are ridiculous Orwellianisms. Anyone thinking about what they are saying should scrutinize words if they are to have integrity and not to all join the ranks of the Hollow Men.

There’s some evidence that the U.S. public — despite numerous obstacles — is becoming more clear eyed. Gallup recently noted that confidence in the Supreme Court has dropped from 48 percent in 1991 to 30 percent today, following the same trend as the public’s confidence in the president and congress. Notes Gallup: “While the Supreme Court, with unelected justices serving indefinite terms, is immune to the same public pressures that elected members of Congress and the president must contend with, it is not immune to the drop in confidence in U.S. government institutions that threatens and complicates the U.S. system of government.”

Rumi aims in his poem to “Break out of this prison for drunks.” Indeed, we need to sober up in the language we use. Speaking of himself, Rumi says “This poetry, I never know what I’m going to say. I don’t plan it. When I’m outside the saying of it, I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.” In contrast, we see so many prepared with their talking points, pre-rehearsed and polished in their deformity. We must dispense with the conformity of many seemingly desperately seeking to be relieved of the burden of thinking about the words coming from their mouths.

Sam Husseini is communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy. His personal writings are at husseini.posthaven.com. Thanks to Avram Reisman.