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Roberts unplugged

Supreme Court | Chief justice can be "tough as a three-dollar steak"

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

After a Pennsylvania high court threw out a drug arrest on grounds that a police officer lacked enough evidence, and a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, Chief Justice John Roberts "channeled his inner Mickey Spillane" (The Washington Post) in a stinging dissent:

"North Philly, May 4, 2001," Roberts wrote. "Officer Sean Devlin, Narcotics Strike Force, was working the morning shift. Undercover surveillance. The neighborhood? Tough as a three-dollar steak. Devlin knew. Five years on the beat, nine months with the Strike Force. He'd made fifteen, twenty drug busts in the neighborhood.

"Devlin spotted him: a lone man on the corner. Another approached. Quick exchange of words. Cash handed over; small objects handed back. Each man then quickly on his own way. Devlin knew the guy wasn't buying bus tokens. He radioed a description and Officer Stein picked up the buyer. Sure enough: three bags of crack in the guy's pocket. Head downtown and book him. Just another day at the office."

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In an opinion joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, Roberts disagreed with the Pennsylvania court, noting that the arresting officer certainly had probable cause. The pulp fiction-style dissent kicked up a buzz in the press and blogosphere mainly because it was fun to read. But Poway, Calif., attorney Colette Wilson suggests Roberts had a deeper motive: "While I do think judges tend to take themselves too seriously, Roberts' opinion gives me hope that some judges are thinking about reality, not just this esoteric world of legal fictions that courts use to reshape the world," Wilson said.

Roberts' gumshoe style contrasted the good work of an experienced police officer pounding the sidewalks with the bizarre decision of the Pennsylvania high court and his colleagues on the high court. "Roberts was not just writing to be funny," Wilson said. "Instead, he very cleverly said, 'Come on. Let's get real here.'"

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