updated 9/11/2009 6:50:45 PM ET 2009-09-11T22:50:45

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said Friday it's vital he and new Justice Sonia Sotomayor get along well because they could spend the next quarter century working together in close quarters.

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"She's going to be a delightful, wonderful colleague," Roberts, nominated to the court by President George W. Bush, said of President Barack Obama's first Supreme Court appointee. "We're going to be working together closely, who knows, for 25 years."

A sometimes wisecracking Roberts let the University of Michigan's law dean and about a dozen students and others put a wide range of questions to him during an on-stage discussion. Later, he attended a groundbreaking for a new classroom building.

Roberts said Sotomayor's long experience as a trial judge will aid the high court.

"She'll be able to contribute in ways that most of us can't," he said.

Justices get along remarkably well, despite public appearances of a deep conservative-liberal split, Roberts said. That means he and his colleagues feel a sense of loss when one of their number leaves and a new member steps in.

"We worry about it a lot in terms of the interpersonal relationships," he said.

Aiming for better than 5-4 rulings
Moderator and law Dean Evan Caminker pressed Roberts on the fact that about a third of the decisions last Supreme Court session were decided on 5-4 votes. Roberts said he agreed it was important to seek more consensus.

"I think we do a better job as judges if we can come to an agreement," Roberts said. He said the public probably sees it the same way.

People may have doubts about the wisdom of a court decision if they hear it was 5-4, he said.

"If it's nine to nothing, you say, 'It's probably right,'" he said.

Justices should shy away from broad rulings, he said, and "stick to the knitting before you."

"I think it's better to hit a few singles, rather than always swinging for the fence," Roberts said. Trying for homers means "you strike out a lot."

The once left-leaning campus gave the conservative chief justice a warm reception, with standing ovations before and after his 90-minute appearance.

Plenty of joking
Roberts was jovial, joking about his lack of basketball prowess, and the fact that justices lack direct accountability to the public.

"You can't throw me out at the next election," he said. "If you don't like what I do, too bad."

Asked how he would advise Obama on filling a future Supreme Court seat, Roberts said, "He could save us all a lot of trouble by just giving me an extra vote."

And asked if too many justices came from elite schools, he said no.

"Some went to Yale," said Roberts, who earned undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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