In First Solo Dissent, Roberts Warns About 'Fighting Over Farthings'

He says his colleagues are 'turning judges into advice columnists'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 9, 2021 2:38 PM CST
Updated Mar 13, 2021 4:15 PM CST
In First Solo Dissent, Roberts Warns About 'Fighting Over Farthings'
The Supreme Court is seen beyond a razor wire-topped fence at sunrise in Washington, Monday, March 8, 2021.   (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts raised eyebrows Monday with his first-ever solo dissent, in which he warned against encouraging litigants to "fight over farthings." Roberts disagreed with the other eight justices, who ruled in favor of reviving a case that had been declared moot by lower courts because the restriction on religious speeches challenged by a Georgia college student no longer existed. The justices said the case should be allowed to proceed because the plaintiff had also sought nominal damages of $1, but Roberts warned that the move would lead to a "radical expansion" of the top court's jurisdiction and said his colleagues appeared to be OK with "turning judges into advice columnists," NPR reports.

The majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas drew on 18th-century English common law, but Roberts argued that issuing "advisory opinions" was "in many respects irreconcilable" with the role assigned to the court in the Constitution, which limited it to "deciding actual cases and controversies," CNN reports. He said that instead of having the court become a "debating society" every time a defendant is "asked to fork over a buck," such cases should be settled by having the defendant just pay the $1 in question, which the majority opinion suggested could be an option. Stanford Law School professor Michael McConnell tells NPR that the 8-1 ruling is a "big deal," and "every lawyer worth his salt will add a claim of nominal damages" to lawsuits from now on. (More US Supreme Court stories.)

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