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Roberts says judges' freedom has limits

PROVO — U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts outlined his conservative judicial philosophy during a speech today at Brigham Young University, saying judges should not legislate from the bench.

"The judicial branch has the authority to interpret the Constitution because it is law," he said, "and must be independent to do so without fear or favor. But the judges must limit themselves to that task. They may not use their independence to write their own policy preferences into the Constitution."

During a 34-minute speech, Roberts quoted fellow conservatives Ronald Reagan, twice, and Robert Bork, once, and also used the Federalist Papers frequently to bolster his theory of a critical, but limited, role for judges.

Roberts suggested to the University Forum audience of 7,080 gathered in BYU's Marriott Center that they read the Constitution again and read the Federalist Papers, where, he said, Alexander Hamilton describes an independence for a Supreme Court justice that "is not the freedom to do whatever he pleases."

Roberts spent the first 20 minutes of his talk delivering a basic outline of the first three articles of the Constitution, which describe the separation of powers among the president, Congress and the Supreme Court.

The speech was free and open to the public. Roberts was not paid to appear. The audience gave him a 30-second standing ovation after his address.

After a short break, Roberts fielded 18 questions from BYU students and alumni for 39 minutes. He declined to answer questions about Guantanamo detainees, gay marriage and some aspects of privacy law because cases related to those subjects may come before the court.

He also avoided a question about presidential candidate Mitt Romney, saying he needed to steer clear of political debate.

But he did provide compelling answers to a number of wide-ranging questions about fellow Justice Clarence Thomas (he is not as reserved in private as he is during oral arguments before the Court), the use of international precedent by some justices (Roberts criticized it) and modern technology.

"I think some of the more difficult issues this court will be asked to address is the impact of modern technology on legal issues," Roberts said.

For example, imaging technology exists that can allow law enforcement officers to see through walls.

"Is that an unlimited search and seizure?" Roberts asked.

"People tend to be focused on what are the hot issues right now," he added. "Those are not the issues I think 25 years from now are the ones people will look back on and say were significant."

Roberts also was meeting with a group of BYU law students this afternoon.