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Roberts’s Rules

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Chief Justice John Roberts embodies the values of the Court he heads. And public opinion polling shows that those values don’t sit well with most Americans. In Roberts’s world, law and morality have little in common. “What is morally just and right – that’s not my job,” he said to a youthful audience in Moscow, Idaho, about a year ago. The sentiment is reflected in Roberts’s rulings. Consider Citizens United, in which he found that corporations have human rights (more, indeed, than most humans) or Caperton v. Massey, in which Roberts concluded (in the minority this time) that there was nothing objectionable about a Supreme Court justice taking millions from the head of a mining company to secure his election and then throwing the case to benefit the mining company and its shareholders.

While Roberts’s sense of justice gives him much flexibility, it evidently requires that others respect and pay deference to him as its corporeal manifestation. So at a talk in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he landed a blow against Barack Obama, the man to whom he misadministered the oath of office on January 20, in a dazzling display of judicial incompetence: “The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court — according to the requirements of protocol — has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling.” The fact that Justice Alito chose not to heed those “requirements of protocol”—responding to the president’s remarks with a “not true”—of course merited no mention from the chief justice. But the President of the United States wielding political rhetoric in a speech before Congress and a nationwide television audience: shocking!

In fact, John Roberts is a political actor, like every chief justice who has preceded him. He’s the head of the only Republican-dominated branch of government, and his recent utterances reflect that he’s more than conscious of that fact. Prior chief justices have pushed for broad consensus and have urged restraint to avoid deciding more than must be decided in any particular ruling. We call these rules “conservative” and “prudential,” but John Roberts is not that sort of conservative. He is delighted to take his 5-4 majorities when he can, and to pronounce rulings with obvious partisan content that shock and dismay the public at large. That’s his right as a member of the Court with lifelong tenure, and it’s his right to robustly defend his views. Whining when other players in this political process complain about what he’s done, however, is unseemly and injudicious.

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