The Roberts Court at 10

A Very Conservative Chief Justice Who Occasionally Surprises | Capstone

In this final snapshot, we take one last look back and also a look forward. We first examine a number of big cases from last Term, most of which were not discussed in previous snapshots and all of which shed additional light on the story of John Roberts’s first decade as Chief Justice. We then offer some thoughts on what we know about John Roberts, a decade into his tenure on the Court. The story is not altogether a simple one.

Summary

As we have approached the tenth anniversary of the start of John Roberts’s tenure as Chief Justice, we have engaged in a year-long project looking at his first decade as Chief Justice. As we noted in our opening snapshot, “[t]here can be no doubt that over the past nine years the Supreme Court has moved the law dramatically to the right in many areas,” but what we sought to examine was “what role . . . John Roberts [has] actually played in this movement.” To answer that question, we looked at a number of different areas of law—from campaign finance and voting to race and women’s rights to the environment and business cases—and examined not just the record of the Roberts Court, but the record of John Roberts himself.

In this final snapshot, we take one last look back and also a look forward. We first examine a number of big cases from last Term, most of which were not discussed in previous snapshots and all of which shed additional light on the story of John Roberts’s first decade as Chief Justice. We then offer some thoughts on what we know about John Roberts, a decade into his tenure on the Court. The story is not altogether a simple one.

To be sure, John Roberts is a very conservative Justice, one 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.

After taking one last look back at Roberts’s first ten years, we look ahead to see what the nation might expect in the first year or two of his second decade on the high court. The Court has already decided to hear a number of significant cases this coming Term, touching on issues from affirmative action and voting to unions and access to the courts. Moreover, other significant cases loom on the horizon, such as a challenge to President Obama’s executive action on immigration and challenges to state restrictions on abortion. Some of these cases are in 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. 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.

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