By throwing his lot in with the Supreme Court liberals in yesterday’s 5 to 4 decision to block a Louisiana law that would have restricted access to a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion, Chief Justice John Roberts gave his latest signal, no doubt much to the dismay of conservatives, that he’s really not interested in having a court run on ideological guidelines.
It’s been long known that Chief Justice Roberts is more than well aware of history and how his role as chief justice will be viewed historically. The lyric from the musical Hamilton – “history has its eyes on you” – can be identified as the main theme for how Chief Justice Roberts sees his role. This seems to be especially true when it comes to long decided legal precedents. Roberts does not seem so interested in tossing the baby out with the bathwater just because the court seems less moderate and more right wing. In fact, you could describe the political views of the four very conservative justices as being more far-right than conservative.
This does not mean that Chief Justice Roberts will become the next David Souter on the court. Appointed by a conservative president, Souter went on to become one of the great liberal voices on the court during his tenure, much to the surprise and dismay of conservatives everywhere. Robert seems more headed towards the solid middle ground. He values balance more than anything else. If his court was to produce a long series of far-right decisions, it would be seen in the same ideological light as the liberal court of Earl Warren. Roberts does not seem interested in having a similar ideologically conservative label slapped on his tenure as Chief Justice.
As long as the current balance remains in the court, Chief Justice Roberts will play the role that Anthony Kennedy played for so long and Sandra Day O’Connor before him. While they tended to side with their conservative colleagues on most issues, they could not be counted on as a totally solid conservative vote and there would be times on certain important issues like reproductive choice or gay marriage when they would switch hats and vote with the liberal members of the court.
Conservatives, especially far-right conservative talking heads like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh, will be furious with Roberts because once again it looks as if their dreams of an overwhelmingly conservative court that will undo the progress that America has made in so many important issues will once again be put on the back burner. Roberts has already dealt with this with his vote on Obamacare and as we noted above, he cares more about the voice of history and he does with the voices of the far-right rabble.
For liberals, this also emphasizes the importance of the health of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the next two years. If Ginsburg were to die or be forced to resign because of health issues, Pres. Trump would no doubt appoint another far-right ideologically motivated justice that would swing the court very far to the right regardless of Chief Justice Roberts desire for more balanced court.
As an atheist, I don’t believe in prayer, but I’m superstitious enough to keep my fingers crossed that Justice Ginsburg will enjoy good health for at least the next two years and hopefully much longer. Chief Justice Roberts probably wishes the same.