Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Curious Case of Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts’s influence on the United Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has been substantial. Importantly, however, Chief Justice Roberts’s judicial philosophy and approach to constitutional interpretation have raised more questions than answers.

By way of background, when former President George W. Bush nominated John Roberts to the Supreme Court, most commentators speculated that Roberts would be a reliably conservative justice and embrace an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation. Indeed, during his confirmation hearings, Roberts emphasized the limited role of the judiciary, analogized judges to “umpires,” and rejected any suggestion that judges decide cases based on policy predilections.  As Roberts stated during his confirmation hearing:

A justice is not like a law professor, who might say, ‘This is my theory... and this is what I'm going to be faithful to and consistent with,’ and in twenty years will look back and say, ‘I had a consistent theory of the First Amendment as applied to a particular area.’ 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.[1]

Based on these and other statements, legal scholars understandably expected that Chief Justice Roberts would decide cases based on the Constitution’s text and the original meaning underlying its provisions,  and thus reach decisions that would favor conservative policy positions.

They were wrong.

Chief Justice Roberts’s jurisprudence has produced more confusion than clarity regarding his judicial philosophy and his approach to constitutional interpretation.  To begin with, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Chief Justice Roberts surprised many legal commentators when he relied upon Congress’s power to tax and spend to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.[2] In so doing, Chief Justice Roberts held that the Court should defer to the coordinate branches when a statute can reasonably be interpreted to pass constitutional muster.[3] Importantly, however, in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts authored the majority opinion in which the Court invalidated Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 even though the United States Senate had voted 98-0 to re-authorize the Act.[4] And in McCutcheon v. FEC, Chief Justice Roberts authored the majority opinion in which the Court invalidated limits on contributions that individuals can make to candidates for federal office.[5] The decisions beg the question of why deference to the coordinate branches is acceptable in some cases but not others.

In the Supreme Court’s recent terms, some of Chief Justice Roberts’s decisions have engendered confusion regarding his judicial philosophy and approach to constitutional interpretation. For example, in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo, Chief Justice Roberts concurred in a 5-4 decision that invalidated a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to obtain hospital admitting privileges. In so doing, Chief Justice Roberts relied on principles of stare decisis to hold that the Court’s prior decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, which invalidated a nearly identical statute in Texas, controlled the outcome.[6] Chief Justice Roberts’s decision was surprising in many respects. Specifically,  Chief Justice Roberts dissented from the Court’s decision in Whole Women’s Health and had previously stated in a brief drafted on behalf of the Department of Justice that Roe v. Wade – the foundation of the Court’s abortion jurisprudence – was “wrongly decided” because it had no “support in the text, structure, or history of the Constitution.”[7] Moreover, Chief Justice Roberts’s reliance on stare decisis in June Medical Services was troubling because in other cases, most recently in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council, Roberts rejected stare decisis as a basis upon which to uphold precedent that he believed was wrongly decided.[8]  Perhaps more surprisingly in Bostock v. Clayton County, Chief Justice Roberts joined a six-member majority that construed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which when enacted prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, to encompass a prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.[9] Although many would agree that the Court reached a favorable outcome, the legal basis for that outcome was questionable. And in joining the majority, Chief Justice Roberts appeared less like an umpire and more like a cleanup hitter.

Of course, there are ways in which to construe Roberts’s decisions as entirely consistent with his judicial philosophy of being an “umpire,” as these cases involved entirely different facts and legal issues. Moreover, most, if not all, judges would eschew labels such as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal,’ and assert that their decisions are predicated upon a faithful interpretation of the relevant constitutional or statutory text and a respect for precedent. Additionally, most, if not all, judges would state that it is improper to focus exclusively or even substantially on the outcomes that judges reach because doing so politicizes the judiciary and ignores the process by which judges decide cases.

All of this may be true. Notwithstanding, Chief Justice Roberts’s jurisprudence – at least in some cases – arguably deviates from his judicial philosophy, particularly his statement that the Court’s role is tantamount to an “umpire,” and his approach to constitutional interpretation, which prioritizes the text and history over contemporary societal attitudes. As Chief Justice Roberts stated in Obergefell v. Hodges:

[A] much different view of the Court’s role is possible.  That view is more modest and restrained. It is more skeptical that the legal abilities of judges also reflect insight into moral and philosophical issues. It is more sensitive to the fact that judges are unelected and unaccountable, and that the legitimacy of their power depends on confining it to the exercise of legal judgment. It is more attuned to the lessons of history, and what it has meant for the country and Court when Justices have exceeded their proper bounds. And it is less pretentious than to suppose that while people around the world have viewed an institution in a particular way for thousands of years, the present generation and the present Court are the ones chosen to burst the bonds of that history and tradition.[10]

Moreover, Chief Justice Roberts’s approach to deference and stare decisis has been inconsistent and unpredictable, thus casting doubt upon whether Chief Justice Roberts’s reliance on either doctrine was merely a vehicle by which to reach an outcome that had less to do with legal interpretation and more to do with political calculations.

So what is going on here?

The most likely explanation is that Chief Justice Roberts is striving to maintain the Court’s institutional legitimacy and credibility with the public. In so doing, Roberts may be particularly focused on avoiding decisions that are perceived as politically motivated or far removed from the mainstream of contemporary political attitudes. Although this approach is certainly understandable, it can have unintended consequences that cause the very problem that Chief Justice Roberts seeks to avoid. For example, if institutional legitimacy and the desire to be perceived as apolitical influences the Court’s decisions, those decisions will, by their very nature, be political because they will be guided by inherently political rather than legal considerations (e.g., the text of a statute or constitutional provision, and precedent). The unintended consequence is that the Court will become inextricably intertwined with, rather than removed from, politics, and further divorced from, rather than reliant upon, legal doctrine as the basis for judicial decision-making. Perhaps most importantly, the determination of precisely what decisions will maintain the Court’s legitimacy is invariably subjective, which risks rendering decisions that, in the name of legitimacy are, as a matter of constitutional law, illegitimate.

Ultimately, this is not to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts is deserving of criticism or has acted with anything but the utmost integrity when deciding cases. Indeed, before joining the Court, Chief Justice Roberts was one of the most influential, respected, and brilliant advocates in the United States, and by all accounts, is an extraordinary colleague and person.  

It is to suggest, however, that Chief Justice Roberts’s view of judges as “umpires” was probably correct and should remain as the judiciary’s guiding principle. After all, “[n]obody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.”[11]

 

[1] Chief Justice Roberts Opening Statement, Nomination Process, available at: https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/chief-justice-roberts-statement-nomination-process.

[2]  567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[3]  See id.

[4]  570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[5] 572 U.S. 185 (2014).

[6] 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016).

[7]  Dylan Scott, John Roberts is the Supreme Court’s new swing vote. Is he going to overturn Roe v. Wade? (July 9, 2018), available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/7/9/17541954/roe-v-wade-supreme-court-john-roberts

[8] 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2017).

[9] 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020).

[10] 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

[11] Chief Justice Roberts's Opening Statement, Nomination Process, available at: https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/chief-justice-roberts-statement-nomination-process.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2020/08/the-curious-case-of-chief-justice-john-roberts.html

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