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Chief Justice John Roberts on tiny type

October 20, 2010 |  3:24 pm

Supreme court Chief Justice John Roberts at Buffalo's Canisius College 10-10You know when you open a new prescription and that curious bundle of paper falls out?

It looks tiny, then opens into an enormous map of the known world with microscopic type the size of Delaware, chemical terms the size of Texas and Say-What! alerts about uncontrollable diarrhea, dizziness, heart failure, dementia, melting skin, dismemberment and asteroid collisions if you consume this medicine of your own free will?

Well, good news for customers who feel guilty about not reading every word of these legal warnings: The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't bother either.

John G. Roberts Jr. thinks they're ridiculous -- and a sign of problems in our priceless, wacky legal system where people sue people for suing them and go overboard trying to protect themselves from every conceivable threat, even to access some websites.

Roberts said providing too much information defeats the purpose of providing any, since no one ends up reading it anyway.

"It's a problem," says the chief justice, "because our legal system obviously is to blame for that."

In a rare public appearance, Roberts returned to his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., this week, wisely ...

... observing that an October visit to that snowbelt city is better than January.  After attending some classes at Canisius College, he spent an evening onstage chatting and answering questions from more than 1,300 students and local legal eagles.

He claimed not to know whether the court will televise its proceedings like some kind of reality legal show. He did note additions to the court's website including oral argument transcripts.

But if the highest judge on the highest court talks caution about adopting new technologies for fear of doing anything that "might injure the institution," you probably don't need to reach for the remote control just yet.

Roberts praised the court's newest member, Obama appointee Elena Kagan, as having "hit the ground running and already contributing in a very positive way to our deliberations."

As for his comments that generated the most news media interest because they have the odor of conflict with the Obama administration, Roberts declined Some Supreme Courtat members at Obama's state of the union address 1-27-10to get into the justices' attendance at the annual presidential State of the Union addresses to joint sessions of Congress. In the past, most justices have attended as a courtesy extended from the judicial branch to the executive branch's statement of annual priorities.

However, in January President Obama took the occasion to strongly rebuke the justices to their face for one of their recent rulings and got a standing ovation from the large Democratic majorities in both houses.  Shortly afterward, Roberts questioned why justices attend an event that "has degenerated into a political pep rally."

At least one more justice now says he'll pass on next winter's address, though the partisan makeup of the legislatures' membership is likely to be quite different. Roberts said, "I think that's something that's up to each individual member of the court," adding it "wouldn't be fruitful" to say more.

Like everyone else in Washington these days, Roberts graduated from Harvard, but he did confess to not knowing one thing: about those silly prescription warnings. "What the answer is," the chief justice admitted, "I don't know."

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Don Heupel / Associated Press; Alex Wong / Getty Images (Some Supreme Court members at Obama's State of the Union on Jan. 27, 2010).