“Judges are like umpires,” declared John Roberts during the 2005 ceremony swearing him in as 17th Supreme Court Chief Justice. “They make sure everybody plays by the rules. Nobody ever went to the ballgame to see the umpire.”
How things have changed. In the last two years, we’ve seen TV ratings-busting confirmation hearings (for Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett) so contentious they resembled Ultimate Fighting Championship, as well as full media coverage for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s funeral that capped a week of national mourning. Ms. Ginsburg was lauded as a liberal rock star, feminist revolutionary and beloved queen rolled into one; within a day of her passing, RBG bobbleheads sold out everywhere. So, to the contrary, Mr. Roberts, all eyes are on the SCOTUS “umpires” these days.
With impeccable timing, John Jay Homestead’s 2021 Lecture Series kicks off Thursday, Jan. 14, with a Zoom interview with Joan Biskupic, author of “The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts.” Registration for the one-hour program, which starts at 7 p.m., is free, but required. A Zoom link will be sent to registered attendees the day before the lecture. Visit johnjayhomestead.org to register.
The lecture series theme this year is “Seats of Power,” and program director Melissa Vail knows there couldn’t have been a better opener. “In this year with power plays happening all around us, we can all benefit from an expert perspective on those who wield power in ways that are subtle, strategic, blatant or in between,” she said.
Ms. Biskupic is a CNN legal analyst and former Supreme Court correspondent for The Washington Post. In 2015 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism.
“Our own John Jay was of course the first Chief Justice but then the job was quite different,” observed Ms. Vail. George Washington, who appointed Jay to head the court continued to rely on him concerning foreign affairs: in 1794 Jay was sent to London for four months to negotiate a post-Revolution settlement with England, resulting in the highly controversial Jay Treaty. “In fact, Jay declined to be reappointed to a second term, saying the courts didn't have the dignity or power of the other two branches of government, “ Ms. Vail added. She continued, “Not only is Roberts considered one of the most powerful chief justices in a long time, but his job is newly changed by the recent addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett and the consolidation of a 6-to-3 conservative majority.” That raises the question, Would Biskupic have written her book differently now?” she asked, adding, “We look forward to hearing about it.”
Ms. Biskupic opens her book by spelling out why the Indiana-raised Mr. Roberts was “hardwired from birth for success.” He excelled at the elite La Lumiere School, where he was both captain of the football team and played the role of Peppermint Patty in the musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University in three years, then magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. One of his classmates told The New York Times that if Mr. Roberts ever got something wrong, the class all believed the teacher had made a mistake. “Once he decided on law, he never looked back,” said Ms. Biskupic. “He is driven by a sense of justice and civic duty.”
In 2012, now-Chief Justice Roberts, a Conservative appointed by former-President George W. Bush, shocked the nation when, after changing his vote several times, he sided with the liberal justices to uphold the Affordable Care Act. By interpreting the Affordable Care Act as a legal “tax,” he avoided what would have likely been a 5-to-4 decision along party lines. “Perhaps he had worries about his own legitimacy and legacy, intertwined with concerns about the legitimacy and legacy of the court,” Ms. Biskupic wrote in her book. In any case, she added, “He brought people and their different interests together.”
The new 6-to-3 Conservative majority on the court, Ms. Biskupic said, means that the chief justice will be even more hard-pressed to build coalitions that transcend partisan politics. She commented, “His closest ally on the right, in terms of ideology, would be Brett Kavanaugh. Amy Coney Barrett appears further to the right at this point, but we need to see how she rules in upcoming months before assessing how she will work with Chief Justice Roberts.”
More SCOTUS turbulence ahead is likely, predicts the author. “The Harvard affirmative action case (a suit claiming Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants) is headed toward the justices,” she said, “and it will likely give the Conservatives a chance to reconsider the 1978 Bakke ruling that first endorsed racial affirmative action on campuses nationwide.” How Mr. Roberts, who has proved himself no fan of government remedies tied to race, interprets that law and how he plays the political consensus builder remains to be seen. Let’s just say it could be a tough call for any umpire to possibly rule against your own school.