U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty)
It seems that everyone is trying to divine insights into how Chief Justice John Roberts is shaping the United States Supreme Court’s legacy. On July 2, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal devoted front-page stories to that subject. On July 7, the Times published a review of Uncertain Justice, a book about the Roberts Court by pre-eminent constitutional scholar and Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, an unapologetic liberal.
While reading the review of Professor Tribe’s book, I recalled a January 2012 interview during which Stephen Colbert asked him about Roberts, who had taken his constitutional law course.
Tribe quipped, “I’m not sure how much of what I taught actually made a difference.”
All this is of special interest to me because Roberts was my law school classmate, and because I was in Professor Tribe’s course, too.
Activism v. Restraint
The Times story offers the Court’s unanimous rulings as a sign that the Chief Justice is sensitive to accusations that it has become an extension of the country’s paralyzing political polarization. The WSJ made a similar point in quoting from Roberts’ 2005 confirmation hearings on the subject of “judicial modesty”: “You don’t obviously compromise strongly held views, but you do have to be open to the considered views of your colleagues.”
Neither newspaper mentions other things that Roberts said during his confirmation hearings, including this: “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.”
Conservatives bemoaning “activist judges” loved that analogy. For trial judges ruling on the admissibility of evidence, it may be reasonable. For a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, it bears little resemblance to reality, as Roberts’ own actions on the Court have proven.
Tactics v. Strategy
In assessing Roberts’ approach, it’s worth distinguishing strategy from tactics. He is playing a long game. Although already on the Court for nine years, he could serve for 20 more. Tactically, he can move slowly in his desired direction. Over time, his strategic vision becomes more evident.
Jeff Shesol, the Times reviewer of Professor Tribe’s book, suggests that some elements of that vision are already in place, including the elimination of meaningful campaign finance limits, reduced regulation of economic activity, and erosion of long-established protections in civil rights, consumer rights, and criminal procedure.
The Journal quotes Cornell Law Professor Michael Dorf’s example of the interplay between tactics and strategy. In 2009, the Chief Justice issued an opinion “that upheld the toughest parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while opening new exemptions from federal oversight…. Four years later, Chief Justice Roberts, joined by his fellow four conservatives, built on the groundwork he had laid in 2009 by sweeping aside Voting Rights Act oversight that had been in place since 1965. All four liberals dissented.” (Professor Dorf chides the liberal justices as “naive” in lending Roberts their votes periodically, but what’s their second choice?)
More to Come
The Roberts Court has laid other foundational elements that could have a dramatic impact on American society. For example, most liberals were relieved when Roberts provided the deciding fifth vote upholding the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). He found common ground with the majority in the federal government’s taxing power.
But on a key issue, he joined the dissent, which resurrected a moribund position on another critical constitutional source of the federal government’s power. As Jeff Shesol observes in his review of Uncertain Justice, Roberts joined a dissent that “took the most constrictive view of federal power under the commerce clause in 75 years, since the New Deal-era court got out of the business of overseeing economic policy.” In other words, the stage is set for a five-man Supreme Court majority to reverse a longstanding jurisprudential justification for federal legislation.
Professor Tribe Was Wrong
Whether the Roberts Court produces positive or negative outcomes for the country depends, of course, on an individual’s political views. The incontrovertible point is that, notwithstanding Professor Tribe’s offhand comment to Stephen Colbert, Roberts learned quite a bit from the course that we took.
Here are a few of the lessons: characterizing an issue can be critical in determining its outcome; one person’s judicial activism is another’s judicial restraint; one person’s liberty can compromise another’s freedom; a tactical loss today can lead to a strategic victory tomorrow.
The Justices of the United States Supreme Court are not merely umpires. They set the rules by which everyone else plays. Chief Justice Roberts is playing a very long game.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.