A few hours before the ball dropped in Times Square, the Supreme Court released Chief Justice Roberts's year-end report on the federal judiciary.
The report is a gem, as are so many of the chief's writings, and its discussion of the court's conservative approach to technology has drawn much attention--TV cameras and the Internet today, pneumatic tubes a century ago. So, too, has its discussion of Chief Justice Earl Warren's extraordinary treatment of the court's unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education-- reading aloud the full opinion before releasing paper copies to the press, as law professor Josh Blackman highlights.
But what jumped out to me was a subtle reference, on page 2, to Robert Frost: "But not even things gray can stay," an echo of Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." (Either that, or the Chief is fan of Sweden's adorable country duo, First Aid Kit.)
It's not Roberts's first reference to Frost--far from it. He famously quoted Frost in the court's farewell letter to the retiring Justice Souter: "We understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains, and return to your land 'of easy wind and downy flake.'" (Souter replied in kind, quoting Frost's "Two Tramps in Mud Time.")
Indeed, this is not even the first of Roberts's year-end reports to quote Frost. He closed his 2006 report with a word of thanks to judges, judicial staff, and their families: "As Robert Frost reminded us — 'from the heart,' we work as one, whether —"together or apart."
Roberts expanded upon that point, and upon Frost more broadly, a year later, at the Fourth Circuit's Judicial Conference. At the Greenbrier in West Virginia, he spoke at length on his appreciation of Frost's poetry, and its relevance to his work on the court, especially as it relates to the lower-court judges in attendance. What follows is a long excerpt from his address:
Now I like Frost's poetry, even though I sometimes wonder if he understood the effect of his words. Frost once remarked that he saw his role as spreading out words like toys on the so that people would trip over them in the dark. Well, I have read Frost's poetry, and I have tripped over toys in the dark, and I can assure you the two are completely different experiences. I will leave it to you to decide which is easier: understanding Frost's words or interpreting Supreme Court decisions.
But I think I know what Frost was aiming at in the poem that I quoted in my report. It’s called “The Tuft of Flowers.” And when Frost published it in 1913, he included two words next to its title: about fellowship.
The poem describes in 20 perfectly rhyming couplets, the old New England process of cutting fields of grass. One person would go out in the morning dew and cut the grass using a hand scythe, one of those things you swing around. Another would follow along a little bit later to turn the cut grass, so that it could dry properly in the sun.
Now the poem speaks from the perspective of the second person, the one turning the grass. Working the empty field, he thinks of the grass cutter who preceded him:
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown