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For Obama and Roberts, second time's the charm

Justice SystemJohn G. Roberts, Jr.Barack ObamaUniversity of ChicagoCulture

Inaugurations are more comfortable the second time around. For President Barack Obama and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., it's not likely there will be a repeat in their encore performance of Chief Justice Roberts' flub of the words in the presidential oath mandated by the Constitution.

Four years ago, both the president and the chief justice were doing the presidential oath for the first time. In administering the oath, Chief Justice Roberts misplaced the word "faithfully." The oath is: "I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States," but Chief Justice Roberts put "faithfully" after "United States," momentarily throwing the about-to-be president off track. Nothing too serious, but the two men repeated the oath the next day, correctly, just to be safe.

If he chooses to, the president can say the oath by himself, without repeating the words spoken by the chief justice administering the oath. Franklin D. Roosevelt recited the oath on his own in 1933. But that would remove a symbol of cooperation between branches of the federal government, something that is sorely lacking these days.

There is no reason why these two men cannot get it right this time. They both have experience with inaugurations — no reason any longer to be nervous or jittery. Besides more experience, since the first inauguration Chief Justice Roberts has shown a willingness to work with President Obama. Last year, the chief justice wrote the majority decision upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, one of President Obama's signature accomplishments in his first term. Of course, there's nothing the president can do about his 2005 vote against Chief Justice Roberts' confirmation, but a smooth recitation of the oath Monday will be a step in the right direction.

An additional fact working in favor of a smooth inauguration: On Monday, as he stands before the nation to take the oath, Mr. Obama will actually already have been sworn in. To meet the requirements of the Constitution, Chief Justice Roberts will administer him the oath today, in a small, private ceremony. So Monday's event will be a repeat of a repeat.

The president and the chief justice have lots in common. Both attended Harvard Law School, both held top positions on the law review, and both graduated magna cum laude — Chief Justice Roberts in 1979 and President Obama in 1991. They made a special piece of history together four years ago. Never before had the president taking the oath and the chief justice administering it had the same alma mater.

However, unlike the president, Chief Justice Roberts has the likelihood of a long and indefinite tenure ahead of him. Previous chief justices made many appearances at inaugurations to administer the oath — John Marshall nine times and Roger Taney seven times, including Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inauguration. Mr. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and has both political and academic reasons, now and in the future, to be interested in Chief Justice Roberts' work on the Supreme Court.

With both feet on the ground, President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts will assuredly do just fine the second time around.

Francis J. Gorman, a Baltimore resident, maintains a website on presidential inaugurations (www.inaugurations.us) and has written a number of articles on the topic. His email is fjgorman@gandwlaw.com.

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