‘You Will Need Courage': The Chief Justice’s Message to the Class of 2020

By Mark Walsh — May 25, 2020 3 min read
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U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivered an online address for his son’s high school commencement over the weekend, telling those graduating during the coronavirus pandemic that they will be tested by a “precarious” period and that “the pandemic has pierced our illusion of certainty and control.”

“Your class is probably one of a handful of the most challenged high school graduating classes since the class of 1942, whose members went from graduation to war or to harsh work in the factories,” Roberts said in the recorded message for the online commencement of the Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn., where his son Jack was part of the graduating class.

“Today we call those graduates part of the greatest generation,” the chief justice said. “What are they going to call you? Your challenge is not as great, but it’s big. And it’s yours.” (The video of the May 23 event is here; Roberts’ remarks begin at about the 4:15 mark.)

Roberts, and his wife, Jane, have two children, Jack and Josephine. The chief justice has a knack for delivering inspirational remarks at school ceremonies for the two kids. In 2017, when Jack completed 9th grade at the Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, N.H., Roberts drew wide praise for a message that urged graduates to remain humble and remember their teachers as they advanced in their studies.

“If you weren’t privileged when you came here, you’re privileged now because you have been here,” Roberts told the graduates of the all-boys 6th-9th grade boarding school. “My advice is: Don’t act like it.”

In 2018, he was introduced as “Josie Roberts’ dad” at Josephine’s graduation from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., and the chief justice urged graduates to set aside time in college “to think about what you’re learning.”

For this year’s online ceremony for graduates, Westminster Headmaster William V.N. Philip introduced Roberts as “just a current parent” but one who has visited frequently during his son’s pandemic-shortened three years on the campus.

“Graduates, do not let the extraordinary events of the past few months obscure your genuine accomplishments or cause you to overlook how fortunate you have been,” the chief justice said, sitting for his recorded message from a courtyard at the Supreme Court building. “You have enjoyed blessings not of your making. But now you’ve been thrust into a jarring and unexpected world also not of your making. The pandemic has or will affect practically everyone in the world in one way or another.”

Roberts explained that the pandemic has required the Supreme Court building to be closed to the public, but that work has continued with telephone arguments and conferences. But that has forced the justices to dispense with their tradition of shaking each others’ hands before each session.

“It’s a small gesture, but it reminds us that whatever our differences, we are united in a common calling,” Roberts said. “We of course cannot shake each other’s hand now. I look forward to the day when that tradition can be revived.”

The chief justice showed his sense of humor by noting that before the recent round of 10 arguments conducted remotely, he was asked “whether the justices participating in arguments from their homes would wear robes. I didn’t know if the person was asking judicial or bath.” (He didn’t say whether he had worn either.)

Roberts said for the class of 2020, “this graduation season is not what you anticipated. I’m not talking about missed ceremonies or parties. I’m talking about the level of uncertainty you face at this important time of transition. I think the pandemic is the world’s way of saying to mankind, ‘You’re not in charge.’”

Roberts urged graduates to focus on humility, community, and compassion.

“And of course, you will need courage,” he said. “Not the boundless courage of the heroic healthcare workers, but enough courage to live free in an uncertain world, recognizing that pandemic or no, this is your moment. Your time to begin leaving your mark on the world with a little humility, a little compassion, and a little courage. I think you’ll do just fine.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.