It does not come as a surprise to anyone that the judicial appointment process in the United States has become very divisive in the recent years. With the refusal of Senate Majority Leader McConnell to hold a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s replacement for Justice Scalia in 2016, then the ugly confirmation hearing of then Judge Gorsuch for the same position in 2017 and the infamous confirmation hearing of then Judge Kavanaugh in 2018 as the replacement for Justice Kennedy, the US Supreme Court has become a central issue of a public debate in Washington. Unfortunately, this has not left the Court unaffected.
The latest bit of surprising news from the US Supreme Court came on 8 February 2019 when the Court, in the case of June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019), issued a stay of a new Louisiana law restricting access to abortion by requiring that physicians obtain surgical privileges in a nearby hospital before they are legally permitted to carry our the procedure. The decision of the Court relates only to an order preventing the law from going into effect until lower Courts rule on its constitutionality and is not a judgment on the merits. Nevertheless, the decision came as a surprise to many commentators because the case was decided 5-4 with Chief Justice Roberts siding with a liberal minority, something Justice Kennedy used to do from time to time in the past. Immediately after the decision was published, many conservative commentators declared Chief Justice Roberts to be the new Swing Vote (Fox News). However, it seems that the there is more to Chief Justice Roberts’s decision than just being the new Swing Vote.
With the appointment of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, President Trump has hoped to solidify a strong originalist majority on the US Supreme Court for decades to come. In fact, 4 out of 5 Republican-appointed Justices now do in fact identify as originalists, of some form at least (Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh). The case of the 5th, Chief Justice Roberts, is less straightforward. He is undeniably a conservative, but his underlying judicial philosophy has never been clearly articulated.
In fact, he has already been regarded by conservative commentators as an unreliable vote for a while now. As early as 2006, Chief Justice Roberts voted along side the 4 liberal Justices in Jones v. Flowers, 547 U.S. 220 (2006) holding that, before a home could be seized and sold in a tax-forfeiture sale, owners must receive effective notification. Perhaps the most famous case of Chief Justice Robert’s liberal sympathies was the 2012 case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012) where the Chief Justice sided with the 4 liberal Justices and upheld the core of ObamaCare. In fact, Chief Justice Roberts rescued ObamaCare twice, again in 2015 in the case of King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), this time together with Justice Kennedy in a 6-3 decision though. Finally, in December 2018, Chief Justice Roberts again sided with the 4 liberals in declining to hear the case of Planned Parenthood v. Andersen, No. 16-3249 (10th Cir. 2018) therefore leaving intact the pro-choice judgment of the Court of Appeals in favor of Planned Parenthood.
Although Chief Justice Roberts has voted with the conservative/originalist majority (against the 4 liberal Justices) concerning many crucial issues such as abortion (Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 (2007)), affirmative action (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007)), campaign financing (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)), religious freedom (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. ___ (2014)), gay rights (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)) and the exlusionary rule (Utah v. Strieff, 579 U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 2056 (2016)), it is clear from his voting record that Chief Justice Roberts has never been a full conservative/originalist, at least not the way Justices Thomas, Scalia and Alito have been. He probably sits somewhere in between his former colleague Justice Kennedy and the pure originalists. He has voted with the 4 liberals less often than Justice Kennedy, but more often than any other Republican-appointed Justice in the recent decade.
Beyond the question of Chief Justice Roberts’s judicial philosophy, he appears to see himself as the man shaping the legacy of the today’s US Supreme Court. It is not without meaning when the Court is referred to by a name of the Chief Justice that presides over it. From the liberal Warren Court to the conservative Rehnquist Court, each Chief Justice has always left his imprint on the Court’s jurisprudence. Since 2005, the US Supreme Court is referred to as the Roberts Court and the Chief Justice does not take this responsibility lightly.
Between 2005 and 2018, what could be described as the ‘early’ Roberts Court, had no clear one majority. Although, Republican-appointed Justices held the majority, they did not share one common judicial philosophy. It all changed in 2018 with the retirement of Justice Kennedy who, although had been appointed by President Reagan, had some liberal sympathies and often sided with Democrat-appointed Justices. Now that Justice Kennedy has been replaced by Justice Kavanaugh, Chief Justice Roberts has 4 strong liberals to his left (Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan) and 4 strong originalists to his right (Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh) which leaves him in the very middle. Because Chief Justice Roberts is not a strict originalist unlike the other 4 Republican appointees, now that Justice Kennedy is gone, he has been naturally pushed towards the centre.
On top of this internal dynamics of the US Supreme Court, there are also a whole range of external factors affecting the functioning of the Court. The political climate in Washington, especially around the judicial appointment process, has left Chief Justice Roberts genuinely worried about the Court’s legitimacy. According to the latest poll conducted in February 2019, 35% of voters choose the U.S. Supreme Court as the branch of the US Government that they trust the most but this is down from 45% in February 2017 (Fox News). The Court is clearly suffering collateral damage of the political fights between the Republicans and Democrats within the other two branches of the Government, perhaps in the Senate in particular which plays a vital role in the appointment process.
This was clearly visible in November 2018 when, in response to President Trump referring to a Judge who had ruled against his Administration as an ‘Obama Judge’ (as the Judge was indeed an Obama appointee), Chief Justice Roberts issued an official statement replying that “We do not have Obama Judges or Trump Judges, Bush Judges or Clinton Judges… What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated Judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.” (The Washington Post).
Given this combination of factors – Chief Justice Roberts’s lack of strong originalist beliefs, his personal responsibility for ‘his‘ Court, the natural push towards the centre in the absence of Justice Kennedy and the political fights within the other two branches of the Government – Chief Justice Roberts probably feels like he is forced to preserve the legitimacy of the Court by all means necessary.
Finally, inasmuch as Chief Justice Roberts might not be a full-blown originalist, it does not mean he has no leading judicial philosophy whatsoever. However, it appears that the Chief Justice’s judicial philosophy is more about the form than the substance. He has been a firm believer in a form of judicial formalism dictating that cases should be decided based on recent precedents and with a strong presumption of constitutionality of federal law. Chief Justice Roberts does not like judicial activism and that includes both the liberal push to expend the powers of the federal Government and socio-economic rights and the originalist push towards the opposite. The Chief Justice seems to like his status quo and judicial precedent because those values promote the Court’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
It is this judicial philosophy that explains how Chief Justice Roberts has been able to side with the liberals in upholding ObamaCare in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. 519 (2012) and King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. ___ (2015) (ie the presumption of constitutionality) and in protecting abortion access in Planned Parenthood v. Andersen, No. 16-3249 (10th Cir. 2018) (ie existing status quo) while at the same time he has voted for campaign financing freedom in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010)) (ie existing status quote) and against gay rights in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015)) (ie existing status quote / precedent).
This also explains why in February 2019 Chief Justice Roberts sided with the 4 liberals in issuing a stay of a new Louisiana law restricting access to abortion in June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019). The law attempted to impose restrictions on who can perform abortion procedures in a similar way to a 2013 Texas law which the US Supreme Court had struck down in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U.S. ___ (2016). For Chief Justice Roberts, the case of June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019) was probably all about the precedent. The Court already ruled on this issue and the precedent must be followed. Given that this case was about nothing more than a stay while the issue was being considered by lower Courts, it must have been unthinkable for the Chief Justice to allow lower Courts to strike down a law that the US Supreme Court had upheld only 2 years earlier.
This is, however, not the end for the type of abortion restrictions which are subject of consideration in June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019). This is because the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U.S. ___ (2016), ie the case establishing the precedent Chief Justice Roberts decided to defend, had been decided 5-4 with the Chief Justice dissenting. This case was decided by the 4 liberals joined by Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts was in the minority along with the other originalists. This is why the case of June Medical Services v Rebekah Gee, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals 586 U. S. ____ (2019) describes Chief Justice Roberts so well – he was willing to vote with liberals against a law which he had voted to upheld only 2 years earlier because this was what was required to preserve the Court’s legitimacy.
That being said, the case of the new Louisiana abortion law might still return to the US Supreme Court in 2020 for consideration of on the merits and this time Chief Justice Roberts might have another go at it. With Justice Kennedy gone and Justice Kavanaugh already voting against the stay (ie in favour of the law), the Chief Justice will have the chance to flip the 2016 precedent and uphold the restrictions as constitutional. Whether he will do so remains to be seen. One thing is clear however at this point, for Chief Justice Roberts, if any Court is to flip a precedent of the US Supreme Court, it must the US Supreme Court itself.