John Glover Roberts, Jr. is the 17th Chief Justice of the United States. He has served since 2005, having been nominated by President George W. Bush after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. | Photo: Associated Press
I am not naïve. I feel like I'm pretty knowledgeable about our political system and the current political climate. I keep up-to-date on what's going on, and I'm not somebody who is normally surprised about things that happen in the news.
Yet, in the hours since the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the Affordable Care Act, I have been stunned. For two years, we've heard vitriol directed towards President Obama, Democratic leaders in Congress, and the health care reform act which has been labeled as "Obamacare". And now, opponents of health care reform have set their sights on the very Conservative, Republican-appointed Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Roberts.
The Chief Justice is not someone who will ever be confused for a Democrat and, many insiders believe that Roberts and the President, while always-professional and respectful, do not particularly like each other. Chief Justice Roberts accidentally bungled one of the most important moments of Obama's life when he stumbled while administering the oath of office to the new President in front of millions of Americans on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009. It certainly wasn't done on purpose, but it was undeniably frustrating and, for those who believe in such things, possibly a bad omen for an incoming President with the eyes of the world and the hopes of a nation upon him. In fact, the swearing-in ceremony was mangled so badly that the Chief Justice came to the White House the next evening and re-administered the oath to Obama in front of a gaggle of reporters in the Map Room, just to be on the safe side.
It was the first time that Roberts had administered the Presidential oath of office since he was appointed by President George W. Bush to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died in 2005. Some bloggers and conspiracy theorists immediately questioned whether had purposely messed up the oath in order to toss some cold water on to Obama's special day. A few of these ridiculous stories suggested that Roberts was gaining a measure of revenge because then-Senator Obama voted against the confirmation of Roberts as Chief Justice in 2005. The 2009 Inauguration was the first time in American History that a Chief Justice administered the Presidential oath of office to someone who had opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court.
What really happened that day was far more innocent than the drama that some "journalists" attempted to interpret. A nervous Chief Justice administering his first Presidential oath and doing so in front of what was probably the largest crowd of human beings that he had ever stood before, attempted to recite the words by memory and stumbled. A President-elect standing in the doorway to history and about to cross the threshold recognized the Chief Justice's error but didn't want to break protocol or publicly correct one of the country's most powerful leaders in the middle of one of the most important moments in both of their lives.
So, the Inauguration Day blunder was embarrassing, but completely innocent. Still, the President and the Chief
|Chief Justice Roberts stepped into the divide, built a bridge, and has begun to lead.|
Justice have had an uneasy relationship. This is not a new development. There is a long history of Presidents finding it difficult to co-exist peacefully with the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. At times, the relationship has been downright hostile, such as the notable feuds between Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall (his cousin), Abraham Lincoln and Roger B. Taney, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes, and Dwight D. Eisenhower vs. Earl Warren. John Roberts and Barack Obama
have not clashed or exhibited the personal animosity that was seen in these other President vs. Chief Justice feuds, but it's always been understood that the current leader of the Executive Branch and the current leader of the Judicial Branch are polar opposites when it comes to ideological beliefs.
Perhaps that's why so many Republicans and Conservative opponents of the Obama Administration in general and the Affordable Care Act to reform health care (or, as opponents label it, "Obamacare") in particular have quickly turned on the Chief Justice. When President Bush appointed Roberts to the Supreme Court in 2005, Conservatives rejoiced. The new Chief Justice had solid Conservative credentials, was a law clerk for William Rehnquist, and served in the White House of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The choice of John Roberts ensured that the Supreme Court maintained the 5-4 advantage enjoyed by the more Conservative wing of the Court. Most importantly, it was a pretty sure bet that Roberts would be at the helm of the Court for a long time. Supreme Court Justices hold lifelong appointments and Roberts, 50 years old when he was sworn in as Chief Justice, was the third-youngest Chief Justice in history and youngest since John Adams appointed 45-year-old John Marshall in 1801. Marshall served longer as Chief Justice than anyone in American History -- 34 years -- a record that isn't out of the question for Roberts. Of Roberts's 16 predecessors, 9 stayed on the bench until they died. The three Chiefs immediately preceding Roberts -- Earl Warren, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist -- each served at least 15 years as Chief Justice. With a young Conservative in control of the Chief Justiceship, Republicans have been confident of their chances when it comes to deciding hot-button political issues that are argued before the Roberts Court.
Protesters outside the Supreme Court on Monday March 26, 2012 | Photo: Jacquelyn Martin
Today, however, the mood of those Conservatives has certainly changed. I've seen shocking words used to describe Chief Justice Roberts after he cast the deciding vote to uphold the controversial provisions of the Affordable Care act -- words like "traitor" and "Judas" and others calling for Roberts to resign or, even crazier, be impeached. Impeached for what? Doing his job?
I don't think that John Roberts woke up this week and decided, "I'm switching allegiances." I don't even think that John Roberts supports the health care reform package put forth by President Obama and passed by a Democratic Congress. What appears to have happened is something far more remarkable, especially in today's reactionary political climate which seems to value obstructionism and demagoguery rather than the solid foundations of reason and logic that our once-wonderful nation was constructed upon.
It seems as if John Glover Roberts, Jr., born in 1955 in Buffalo and son of a steel plant manager, decided to lead. At times over the past almost 7 years, the Supreme Court has felt like a continuation of the Rehnquist Court but with a substitute driver. Every Chief Justice eventually puts his stamp on the Court that he leads and, this week, the 17th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court made this the Roberts Court. John Roberts has grown into his role as Chief Justice and, with a national political climate that has everyone at one another's throats, Chief Justice Roberts stepped into the divide, built a bridge, and has begun to lead.
John Roberts is going to be Chief Justice for a very long time, and from this point forward, no one will be able to predict what kind of leader he will be. What is now certain is that he WILL and CAN lead. The Chief Justice doesn't have to face the voters, he doesn't have to raise money to remain in office, and he doesn't have to bend or break for special interests or questionable reasons. What he must do is rise above the argument and decide issues -- not politically or along ideological lines, but through the law. More than any other public figure, the Chief Justice can look past politics, ignore ideological differences, and, quite simply, do the right thing.
The United States of America is a nation of laws. In many cases, our elected officials have stained the political system and turned the idea of compromise into a weakness or a dirty word. With partisan ideology contaminating the Congress and crippling the Presidency, we should be proud that the third co-equal branch -- the Judiciary -- has proven its worth this week. John Roberts will eventually make decisions that I disagree with, but after his honest and, in a way, courageous decision on upholding the Affordable Care Act -- not because he agrees with its politics but because his job is to judge its legality and there's nothing illegal about it -- I feel less worried about our system of government. I feel like the system worked and, in the midst of this country's political struggles, the continued success of our Constitutional system is something of a victory.
Although many of the people who have long supported John Roberts or share his political views are now condemning his decision to vote to uphold to Affordable Care Act, I hope that other people like me will recognize the leadership qualities required -- and the sense of justice and righteousness that the Chief Justice wielded. Roberts's action didn't merely uphold a health care reform bill; it reinforced the very best things that our government can do and/or be.
As I've been writing this article, I've wondered, "Am I overstating this? Am I giving the Chief Justice too much credit for simply doing the right thing?" The answer is no. Sadly, the obstructionism of the past two years and the no-compromise politics being played by the extreme wings of both political parties has actually turned "doing your job" into an impressive accomplishment. Plus, many journalists -- including myself -- have put a lot of time into whining about our ineffective elective officials, slamming the do-nothing 112th Congress and its record-low 9% approval rating, wondering if we'll ever have a moderate leader who unites the majority of Americans who land solidly in the middle of the two political parties, questioning the absence of reason in our political debate, and hoping that somewhere, at some point, some leader will step up and do the right thing for the majority of Americans, even if that leader has to compromise a little. The Chief Justice did that on Thursday, so this hasn't been an overstatement. It is (finally) a little bit of progress for a country that has been treading water for far too long. If the regular supporters of Chief Justice Roberts feel the need to attack him for helping Americans move forward, I hope my fellow progressives see the steps he is helping this country take into a hopeful future.