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The Role Of Chief Justice John Roberts

February 8, 2019

Chief Justice John Roberts is a conservative.  There is no doubt about that matter.  He has a philosophical judicial style that is not in question.  For the majority of the years he has served on the court he has helped move the court to the right.  He rulings on Heller, Citizens United, and Shelby County v. Holder were not to be read by those with high blood pressure.  They were incorrectly decided.

But that is only one side of the larger story about Chief Roberts.

Now that Justice Kennedy is no longer on the court Roberts has two missions.  One is, at times, to be the swing vote with rulings which places him at the center ideologically speaking.  The second mission is to frame the legacy that historians will write about when dealing with the ‘Robert’s Court.’  As such, there is no doubt given those two missions that Roberts is now positioned to be the most powerful chief justice in 80 years.

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes faced a time of great upheaval and political tumult when President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to change the make-up and numbers of the court.   It was thanks to the keen leadership from Hughes that the court-packing plan was sent into a sink hole. (That was the worst idea FDR had.) Now it is Roberts who needs to find the same firm resolve to look out for the needs of the nation rather than buckle to the political winds from the current White House.

I have long felt that Roberts has a deeper sense of his role than just to be another conservative vote. He grasps the fact that secular judges must uphold our Constitution, the law, and then shape decisions for what is best for the larger society and our democracy.  The Federalist Society is not his boss, the nation is.   I sense that Roberts is far more reason-based than others who rule from the conservative side.  And I say that even though he has allowed for incorrectly ruled cases to be in the majority on the court.

Roberts does not want his legacy to be that his court was nothing more than a partisan one.  Therefore, his decisions where he has ruled with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan are strong reminders from him that the court is not to be a conservative bastion.

There is certainly reason to have a healthy dose of cynicism when it comes to Roberts, given the cases mentioned at the start of this post.  I am under no illusions about who he is at heart.  But I am aware of history and the larger play he is making to define how he will be remembered.  That is what we can hope will allow for a more balanced approach to his leadership on the bench.  That is the role our nation needs him to fill out, and continue to grow into.

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