Don’t be fooled by recent rulings: John Roberts is playing the long game

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is no revolutionary, he's still deeply conservative

Published July 11, 2020 9:11AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice John Roberts (Getty Images/Salon)
US President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice John Roberts (Getty Images/Salon)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

In the right-wing media, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is being slammed as a traitor to the conservative cause because of his recent rulings on a Louisiana abortion law, LGBTQ rights in the workplace and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many far-right pundits see the 65-year-old Roberts, who was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005, as a traitor to the conservative cause. But journalist Sam Baker, in a June 10 article for Axios, stresses that Roberts — despite having some nuance — is still decidedly right-wing in his judicial philosophy.

"Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is not the revolutionary that conservative activists want him to be," Baker explains. "He moves slower than they want, sides with liberals more than they want and trims his sails in ways they find maddening. But he is still deeply and unmistakably conservative, pulling the law to the right — at his own pace and in his own image."

Roberts' critics on the far right, according to Baker, fail to see the big picture.

"Over the past few weeks," Baker observes, "Roberts sided with the Court's liberal bloc on abortion, LGBTQ discrimination and DACA. And he wrote Thursday's 7-2 ruling that said Manhattan prosecutors can subpoena (President Donald) Trump's taxes and other financial records. Most of those rulings were foreseeable and left conservatives with the same bitter aftertaste they've felt before — when Roberts upheld the Affordable Care Act, for example, or blocked a citizenship question from the 2020 census."

But none of that, Baker stresses, means that Roberts is "turning into a liberal." Jonathan Adler, a conservative legal professor at Case Western Reserve University, told Axios that Roberts is a "conservative minimalist" who operates on an "anti-disruption principle." In other words, Roberts tries to avoid striking down federal laws when he believes it is unnecessary.

Noting how conservative Roberts' overall record has been, Baker notes, "There are many areas where Roberts is not particularly reserved — most notably, voting rights. He led the Court's rulings striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act, upholding partisan gerrymandering. He has also consistently voted to end existing affirmative action programs in schools. And even the decision conservatives hated the most — upholding the ACA — was embedded with firmly conservative legal holdings on Congress' power to regulate commerce, which both sides agree will thwart liberal policies in the future."

Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, shares Baker's view that Roberts, all things considered, is quite conservative in his outlook.

Wydra told Axios, "I think that the rulings we've seen from him where he has disappointed conservative observers are instances where he just hasn't gotten on the train to Crazytown…. To a certain extent, I do take comfort in the fact that he wants to ensure that the public views the court as a legitimate

By Alex Henderson

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