Coo coo ca choo, Mr. Roberts

I confess that I had not imagined my next blog post would be on Chief Justice John Roberts. I’m not what you would call a Supreme Court follower, and I don’t actually know all that much about the different Justices, besides what is commonly known about them and how they are painted in broad strokes. However, as many of you probably know, these past few weeks there have been major Supreme Court decisions in which Roberts has played a significant role; and after listening to a recent podcast, I knew I wanted to reflect on him and the recent decisions.

First, for your reference, this is the podcast  episode: []: it’s “The Daily,” by The New York Times and it’s a consistently good and interesting podcast. This episode was especially interesting, I thought; it started out talking about the recent abortion decision, but then it quickly honed in on Roberts himself, and the role he is playing in shaping the court, and his views on the Supreme Court in general.

So, let’s recap, shall we?

Roberts was nominated by George W. Bush in 2005 to be an associate justice, to replace Sandra Day O’Conner, who was retiring.  However, Chief Justice Rehnquist died before Roberts’ confirmation hearings, and Bush then changed his nomination to be for the position of Chief Justice.  It was assumed that Roberts would be a “conservative” justice, and thus support politically conservative judicial decisions.

Funny thing, though, like other justices before him [Anthony Kennedy’s name has been tossed around in this context], Roberts is turning out to be a ‘principled’ justice in this regard, and one who has a very strong belief about the apolitical nature of the Supreme Court. Basically, he believes that the Court is not political institution; and in one speech he said that the Court does not speak for the people, it speaks for the Constitution, and it will do that work regardless of whether the times are calm or whether they are tumultuous.  I find his commitment to that nonpartisan work of the Court admirable.

There were signs of Roberts’ commitment to this work early; certainly as early as 2012, when he cast the decisive vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act, and last year as well, when he voted with those justices who blocked Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the census.  However, there is no question that we have really seen this commitment come to the fore in the past few weeks.

Let’s review the recent decisions:

On Monday, June 15th, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex. The ruling was 6-3, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four ‘liberal’ justices.

On Thursday, June 18th, the Court ruled that Trump’s 2017 attempts to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program were unlawful. That ruling was 5-4, with Roberts siding again with the four liberal justices.

Finally, on Monday, June 29th, the Court struck down a restrictive Louisiana law that would have dramatically compromised access to safe and legal abortions in that state.  For a third time, Roberts sided with the liberal justices [I’m starting to chafe against that term….], and the decision was 5-4.

These recent decisions have infuriated many Republication politicians who had both assumed and hoped that Roberts could be counted on to further their political agendas.  He has signaled his clear refusal to be used in this way.

From the outside looking in, some might say he is moving to the center; maybe he is, and maybe it isn’t—I suppose we will continue to have to wait and see.  I imagine there are other decisions coming that will not jibe with my own politics, so I’m not really to make any assessments about his personal political views—and, I’m not sure that really matters.

What matters for me now is the fact that, in this time of polarization, partisanship, and vicious debate across the political divide, I find Roberts’ commitment to the Constitution, his steadiness, and the courage of his convictions, extraordinary. 

I feel like even just a few years from now, when we look back on this extremely tense and divisive time, Roberts is going to stand out to us as an individual of strong principles, and a man who did not allow himself to be pulled into any specific camp for anyone’s political gain.  He is someone who does not pander to power, someone who does not seek to be liked, and someone who is unafraid of the consequences of difficult decisions.

In all those things, I think he is to be admired.  We all do well to cultivate the ability to be open to new perspectives, the willingness to take seriously the views of those on “the other side,” and the courage to stand up for our convictions, even in the face of pressure and opposition—even to the point of being criticized and reviled. Our times call for such courage.

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