One odd innovation during the most recent GOP presidential candidates debate was how many candidates trashed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Wasn’t he the savior for all conservatives some 10 years ago? Didn’t he condemn the recent majority ruling on same-sex marriage in June?
Which is why I was interested to read a recent Los Angeles Times story on Roberts’ fall from grace, as it were.
Several publications ran similar 10th anniversary pieces on Roberts' ascent to the high court this past week. The chief justice, by the way, just turned 60, so his influence on the court should last at least another 20 years, if he sticks around as long as some of the current 80-something justices.
Here is a crucial section of the Los Angeles Times piece. Might there be a crucial element of his work and worldview missing?
When a divided Supreme Court handed down six major rulings in the last week of June, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. came down firmly on the conservative side in five of them.
He voted against gay marriage, in favor of weakening a federal law against racial bias in housing and for the Arizona Republicans who challenged the state’s independent panel that draws election districts. He joined 5-4 majorities to block an Obama administration clean-air rule and to uphold a state's use of substitute drugs to carry out lethal injections.
But as Roberts this week marks the 10th anniversary of becoming chief ustice, he finds himself in the cross hairs of right-leaning pundits and GOP presidential hopefuls who brand him a disappointment and openly question his conservative credentials because of the one case of the six in which he voted with the court’s liberals. The decision marked the second time Roberts had voted to uphold President Obama’s healthcare law.
In the recent GOP presidential debate at the Reagan library, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said it had been a “mistake” for President George W. Bush to have appointed Roberts, a former Reagan White House lawyer who, like Cruz, came to Washington to work as a law clerk for then-Justice William H. Rehnquist. When Roberts was chosen in 2005 to succeed Rehnquist as chief justice, Cruz had lauded him as a "principled conservative."
The article goes on to list an impressive pile of conservative-leaning rulings from Roberts on everything from same-sex marriage to gun rights, then explains that the final straw for the Right was Roberts’ support for Obamacare in not just one but two rulings. Roberts not only supported the healthcare law but also blocked an Arizona law against immigrants. And so on.
As you read the piece, there is, yes, a definite religion ghost floating about the piece.
Nowhere in the entire narrative about the evolution of Roberts’ thought is any mention that he is a serious, practicing Catholic. And that his zigzags between conservative and liberal stands might have something to do with where the Catholic Church stands on universal healthcare (basically for it because it helps the poor and as long it includes religious freedom provisions); and immigration. Get Religion has written on this connection here and here for starters.
If anyone wondered at the latter, six days of listening to Pope Francis identify himself as a son of immigrants to the American people plus remind listeners over and over to be hospitable to the alien and the stranger will certify that here is a pro-immigration denomination.
Now, the Los Angeles Times has run material on Roberts’ faith before. And entities like CatholicVote.org say Roberts has ruled rightly on a number of issues important to Catholics. However, Roberts has supported the death penalty which the Catholic Church opposes, so it’s obvious that not all of Roberts’ decisions fall in line with Catholic doctrine. But some do and the chief justice’s seeming inconsistency may have to do with how he reads Catholic moral teaching into his decisions.
We’re not inside Roberts’ head, so we don’t know all of what informs him. But it seems that his faith has done so from time to time, so any 10th anniversary reprise of his tenure should include at least some mention of where his beliefs, his rulings and Catholic teaching coincide.
That's a fair question journalists could be asking of other justices, by the way. As the Daily Beast noted more than a year ago in an article about how the Supreme Court for the first time in recent memory lacks one Protestant justice:
Beyond the constitutional ramifications, I’m curious about how the backgrounds and life experiences of the justices affected their legal opinions and their moral imagination. This is treacherous terrain. Jurists like to claim they are only interested in applying the law; recall how during her confirmation hearings in 2009, Justice Sonia Sotomayor had to back away from her earlier comment that the perspective of a “wise Latina” would be useful on the court. But every justice is shaped by his or her heritage, especially when the case involves religion. The refusal of most court observers to even mention the religious affiliation of the justices has hampered our understanding of this important case.
And those 'court observers' include journalists who should not be shy as to the part religion plays in the decisions of the highest court in the land.