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U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern and regret Friday that the sharp partisan divide in Washington has attempted to politicize the Supreme Court, most notably through the Senate confirmation process.

Roberts told a University of Nebraska College of Law audience he does not want that "real partisan rancor (to) spill over" into the court and he said it has not done so.

"We are not Republicans or Democrats," the chief justice said.

"I'm worried about people having that perception," he said, because "it is not an accurate one."

Roberts noted that Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who was nominated by Republican President Ronald Reagan, and Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nominated by Democratic President Bill Clinton, were confirmed by the Senate by what he recalled to be unanimous votes not so long ago.

"Neither would have a chance (of that) today," Roberts said.

In contrast, he said, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, who was nominated by Democratic President Barack Obama, was confirmed in 2010 by a 63-37 vote, which Roberts described as "almost a strict party vote." 

The Ginsburg vote in 1993 actually was 96-3; the Scalia vote in 1986 was unanimous.

"We are not part of the political process," Roberts told the Law College audience composed of judges, lawyers and invited guests, as well as law students. 

"We don't make decisions on political grounds."

"If we do something you don't like," Roberts said, pausing before finishing his sentence with a smile, "too bad. We have to justify what we're doing, but we're not captive" to the political world.

The Roberts appearance in Lincoln was a rare event in which the chief justice participated in a public dialogue, although the questioning was limited to written submissions in advance, mostly from students, which were filtered and posed by Judge William Jay Riley of Omaha, chief judge of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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That format led to questions mostly about process rather than the product of the so-called Roberts Court, nothing about its decisions or body of work.

Roberts sat in an easy chair next to Riley with legs crossed, responding to questions in an engaging and conversational manner. 

The American people "don't need to know who we are," he said, "but they do need to know what we do."

And it would be good if Washington would "keep the partisan divide on the other side of First Street," where the court is located, he said.

Roberts made an appearance at Creighton University Law School in Omaha prior to the UNL event.

There has been considerable speculation about the possibility that the chief justice might remain here for Saturday night's Nebraska-Miami football game, perhaps joining Associate Justice Clarence Thomas at the event. Thomas is an avid Husker fan.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSDon.

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