Swamp Water Jurisprudence: Wisdom from the Chief Justice


by Judge Dennis Challeen

Historically, our U.S. Supreme Court was looked upon as an impartial, unbiased arbitrator of serious legal issues affecting our nation. Unfortunately, in recent decades the court has become as polarized as the president who nominates and the senate that confirms the choice. If you are looking for an impartial judge to hear your case you are more likely to find that judge in your local county courthouse than in the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. However, there is a glimmer of hope if we pay attention to Chief Justice John Roberts, who has consistently tried to get the Supreme Court to act like judges rather than political pawns for the party that “brung you,” as President Harry Truman used to say.

John Roberts Jr. (born on January 27, 1955), our 17th Chief Justice of the United States, was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2005 upon the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

In a little known news event, the Chief Justice gave the commencement address to his son’s ninth grade graduation class. The audience was small and the occasion was not intended to be a noteworthy event. Fortunately, his words found their way into “The Wall Street Journal.”

He immediately caught the attention of his audience by entitling his speech: “I Wish You Bad Luck.” He followed this by saying that traditionally, commencement speakers “will wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I will tell you why.

“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.

“I hope you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the value of loyalty.


“Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted.

“I wish you bad luck again, from time to time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life, and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.

“And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.

“I hope you’ll be ignored so that you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.

“Whether I wish these things or not, they are going to happen. And whether you will benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a Democrat, Republican, or neither, the remarks of the Chief Justice to those youngsters that day were pure wisdom. When asked about the source of his words, he responded that he set out to reflect upon “some of the harsh realities that everyone will face in the course of a full life,” and how to anticipate them and learn from them.

Psychologists tend to agree that wisdom involves an integration of knowledge, experience, and deep understanding that incorporates tolerance for the uncertainties of life as well as its ups and downs. There’s an awareness of how things play out over time, and it confers a sense of balance. It can be acquired only through experience, but by itself, experience does not automatically confer wisdom, (Psychology Today).

I recall a repeat ex-convict who told me upon being sentenced again to state prison that he liked it in prison because he was looked up to and respected there, not like on the outside. Now that’s experience without gaining wisdom.

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform or pause and reflect.” - Mark Twain

“Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.” - Coach John Wooden

This gets me to my favorite wisdom quote. Whenever I read a newspaper columnist expounding political theories, I’m reminded of Minnesota’s late Sen. Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) who said, “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.”


Search Archives

Our online forms will help you through the process. Just fill in the fields with your information.

Any troubles, give us a call.