At a judicial conference, Roberts was asked how school administrators should interpret seemingly conflicting messages from the court in two recent decisions, including one Thursday that said Arizona officials conducted an unconstitutional strip-search of a teenage girl. In 2007, the justices sided with an Alaska high school principal, ruling that administrators could restrict student speech if it appears to advocate illegal drug use.
Roberts told the audience there was no conflict in the court's rulings, just clarity intended to deal with narrow issues that surface from government actions.
"You can't expect to get a whole list of regulations from the Supreme Court. That would be bad," Roberts said. "We wouldn't do a good job at it."
In the Arizona case, the high court said school officials violated Savana Redding's rights when they strip-searched her for prescription-strength ibuprofen. The court said educators cannot force children to remove their clothing unless student safety is at risk.
Roberts said administrators should take comfort in the 8-1 ruling, which also found that officials could not be held financially liable when carrying out school policy.
"We recognized that they didn't have very clear guidance," Roberts said. "We laid down a rule about what they can and can't do, but we said they don't have to fork over damages from their own personal funds if they guess wrong."
Roberts also defended the court's diversity — all nine justices are former federal appeals court judges. The issue has surfaced in light of Justice David Souter's decision to retire.
Senators from both parties have said the court needs justices who don't come from the federal bench, or the "judicial monastery," as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has called it. Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will begin hearings next month on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to succeed Souter; she, too, is an appeals court judge.
Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic justice and the third woman ever on the court.
Roberts said the current justices have a range of legal experience despite their shared background on the appeals level.
"I consider myself a practicing lawyer," Roberts said, noting he was a judge for only a short time. He served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 2003 to 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated him to be chief justice.
Other justices have academic and political experience, he said, adding that Justice Clarence Thomas ran a federal agency.
"We're also a pretty diverse bunch," he said.
Roberts did not refer directly to Sotomayor, President Barack Obama's first nominee to the court.
Asked about his desire for more consensus among justices in the court's opinions, Roberts said he wasn't suggesting that justices compromise, but that agreement gives clearer guidance.
"The more we can speak with a broader degree of agreement, it looks a lot more like law," he said.
Hinting at his legal philosophy, Roberts said one of the Supreme Court's most monumental cases in underscoring how "things went terribly wrong" was an 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case that said blacks, whether or not they were slaves, were not protected by the Constitution and could never be U.S. citizens.
Roberts said that in contrast to previous decisions that sought consensus, the chief justice in the Dred Scott case pushed an outcome "that really had no basis in the Constitution." Roberts' comments came days after a surprisingly unified Supreme Court ruled narrowly to preserve the Voting Rights Act.
While in some instances, justices may have to step in to decide cases of "great political significance," in many others "there are going to be huge consequences if you do leap ahead and involve the court in politics," he said.