Federal Courts and Nominations

Ten Terms Of Chief Justice John Roberts: Very Conservative, Occasionally Surprising

Washington, DC – On September 29, 2005, John Roberts became the 17th Chief Justice of the United States. Ten years later, the Roberts Court is poised to begin another potentially blockbuster Term with a number of hot button issues, including labor rights, affirmative action, and corporate power already on the Court’s docket, and others, such as immigration and abortion, on the horizon. Given the Court’s attention to these and other vital issues, it is likely to be at the center of the 2016 race.

Last September, Constitutional Accountability Center launched our “Roberts at 10” project, taking stock of the Chief Justice’s first ten Terms on the Court by carefully examining his votes and evaluating his written opinions in a series of a dozen Snapshots, covering an array of representative issues. Today we conclude this project with a capstone Snapshot, Roberts at 10: A Very Conservative Chief Justice Who Occasionally Surprises.

Read the Roberts at 10 capstone here, and an excerpt below:

To be sure, John Roberts is an exceptionally conservative Justice who votes to move the law sharply to the right far more often than not. Indeed, there are some areas (such as race and access to the courts, to name just two) in which Roberts has firm ideological convictions; in these areas, it is often easy to predict his vote, no matter how strongly the law might point in the opposite direction. But there are other areas, as well—areas in which Roberts’s deep concern about the institutional legitimacy of the Court and his reputation as its Chief Justice can lead him to put law over ideology. Those areas may be few, but they can also be important. This past Term’s decision in King v. Burwell, the case about tax credits under the Affordable Care Act, is one notable example.

CAC President Doug Kendall said, “This project provides a comprehensive look at a Chief Justice in the formative years of his leadership, still nearer the beginning than the end of what promises to be a long tenure. While too many of John Roberts’s votes have been deeply disappointing, ignoring the Constitution’s clear text and history, a notable handful of votes have shown his capacity to set ideology aside and follow the law.”

As lead coordinator of our Roberts at 10 work, CAC Appellate Counsel Brianne Gorod said, “Ten years ago, the legal community and the American public had comparatively little to go on it terms of whether John Roberts would perform on the Court more as the legal ‘umpire’ hailed by the right, or the highly partisan conservative attacked aggressively from the left. After a decade during which the Court has decided hot button political cases Term after Term, there is now a robust set of cases and writings by Roberts that flesh this question out. The answer, as seen time and again throughout the Snapshots that are the building blocks of this project, is that Roberts is a very conservative Justice who occasionally surprises.”

Today’s capstone Snapshot not only pulls together the threads of the dozen previous installments, but also looks ahead to how the record of Chief Justice Roberts sheds light on the Term to come. Some issues likely to confront the Court include “areas in which Chief Justice Roberts’s long record of advancing conservative ideological ends provides little reason for optimism about how Roberts will ultimately vote,” the capstone reads. “But importantly this is not true of all of these cases, and we identify a few cases where we hope that this very conservative justice will end up surprising us.”


Resources for the Roberts at 10 Series:

*  “Roberts at 10” experts available for interviews: CAC Appellate Counsel Brianne Gorod, Counsel Tom Donnelly, and Civil Rights Director David Gans.

*  Audio: Telebriefing –  Ten Terms Of Chief Justice John Roberts  https://soundcloud.com/cac-constitution/roberts-at-ten

*   “The Roberts Court Thinks Corporations Have More Rights Than You Do,” David Gans, The New Republic, June 30, 2014: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118493/john-roberts-first-amendment-revolution-corporations

*  Roberts at 10: A Look at the First Decade of John Roberts’s Tenure as Chief Justice (opening Snapshot): https://www.theusconstitution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Roberts-at-10-A-Look-at-the-First-Decade.pdf

*  Roberts at 10: Federal Power: The Evolving Story of John Roberts and Congress’s Commerce Clause and Spending Clause Powers: https://www.theusconstitution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Roberts-at-10-Evolving-Story-of-John-Roberts-federal-power.pdf

*  Roberts at 10: Campaign Finance and Voting Rights: Easier to Donate, Harder to Vote: https://www.theusconstitution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Roberts-at-10-Easier-to-Donate-Harder-to-Vote.pdf

*  Roberts at 10: Roberts’s Quiet, But Critical, Votes To Limit Women’s Rights:

*  Roberts at 10: Roberts’s Consistent Votes to Close the Courthouse Doors:  https://www.theusconstitution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Roberts-at-10-Access-to-the-Courts.pdf

*  Roberts at 10: Turning Back the Clock on Protections for Racial Equality:

*  Roberts at 10: Roberts’s Environmental Law Record: It’s Not Good, But Don’t Count Him Out:

*  Roberts at 10: John Roberts and LGBT Rights  – The Jury is Still Out:

*  Roberts at 10: Roberts and the Fourth Amendment: A Mostly Pro-Government Vote with Some Important Exceptions: https://www.theusconstitution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Roberts_at_10_08_Fourth_Amendment_0.pdf

*  Roberts at 10: The Strongest Free Speech Court in History?

*  Roberts at 10: Leader of the Supreme Court, Leader of the Federal Courts

* Roberts at 10: A Very Conservative Chief Justice Who Occasionally Surprises


Constitutional Accountability Center (www.theusconstitution.org) is a think tank, public interest law firm, and action center dedicated to fulfilling the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text and history.


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