During a one-hour interview on Wednesday in New Zealand, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts offered some candid thoughts about technology’s impact on potential new cases heading to the Supreme Court.
Roberts was interviewed by a New Zealand law professor and didn’t take audience questions. He also didn’t discuss politics in the United States, aside from bemoaning the political aspects of Supreme Court confirmation hearings and some generalities about politics. But Roberts, in remarks reported by several media outlets, did explain how new technologies are affecting the Court in new ways, and specifically, how smart phones influence privacy rulings.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. California that police generally needed a warrant to search the smartphone of a person they just arrested. Roberts wrote the unanimous opinion for the Court in that case.
“We recently had a question about whether accessing an iPhone [and] whether the Fourth Amendment applied to that or not. And I think the court correctly and unanimously thought that it did,” Roberts said. “I could ask anyone where - would you rather have law enforcement rummaging through your desk drawer at home or rummaging through your iPhone? I mean there's much more private information on the iPhone than in most desk drawers, so yes, the Fourth Amendment should apply there.”
Roberts said other important factors for the Court could be a slew of future patent cases and new types of electronic search equipment that would let a person remotely look inside buildings.
“There are devices now that can allow law enforcement to see through walls, heat imaging and all this kind of thing,” Roberts said. “What does that do to a body of law that has developed from common law days in England about when you can search a house? If you're standing on a street and you're applying [a procedure] is that the same thing as kicking down the door and seeing it?”
Roberts didn’t get into current political debates at home, but he was candid about Supreme Court confirmation in the Senate.
“Judges are not politicians and so they shouldn't be scrutinized as if they were. You are not electing a representative so you're not entitled to know what their views on political issues are. You are selecting someone who is going to objectively and fairly apply the law that binds the other political branches,” Roberts said.
“I think if the process were more focused on those other things, it would be more useful - closer to what the Founding Fathers had in mind.”