For those conservatives tenaciously clinging to the idea that Chief Justice John Roberts is playing some masterful game of chess that will end only with the liberals on the Court, in Congress, and in the White House brought to their knees in humiliating defeat, well, I’m not even sure the Chief is up for a rousing game of checkers. According to Jan Crawford’s piece, Roberts’ change of heart was motivated in large part to concerns over media pressure. So, the Chief Justice of the United States, according to this report, was cowed into upholding Obamacare because he was afraid of how the Court – and especially he – would look.
It has been rightly pointed out that Crawford relied on two anonymous sources, and therefore this story should be taken with some fine grains of salt. It’s certainly a plausible story, but an unconfirmable one.
Fine. It is possible that the Chief Justice wasn’t cowed by media or executive pressure. But even if the Chief Justice was not particularly pressured to decide in favor of Obamacare, it’s not beyond reason to suggest that he was still concerned about the institutional prestige of the Court, as well as a respect for the other two branches of government. Thus he concocted a rather far-fetched legal argument in order to justify declaring as constitutional a statute he knew at heart was not constitutional. So the more charitable interpretation of Roberts’ behavior is not that he’s a coward, but rather an activist who decided to rewrite a statute from the bench in order to avoid embroiling the Court in a partisan political battle.
There is a third option: John Roberts legitimately believed in the argument he made about the statute’s constitutionality.
Which is the option in which the Chief Justice looks like a chess playing genius again?
The title of the post, by the way, comes from my wife’s suggestion that President Bush nominated a Ravenclaw when he should have nominated a Gryffindor. It’s certainly more logical than anything I heard the Chief Justice say last week.
Update: It occurs to me that there is a fourth avenue of “defense,” and that is Roberts made a brilliant political calculation by forcing Obama to defend the health care law as a tax. Put aside the question of whether or not that would be an astute political maneuver. If that were indeed Roberts’ intention, than that hardly speaks well as to his character as Chief Justice. If he decided to uphold the law only to enable its use as a partisan club against the president, then the Chief Justice would have engaged in behavior that would justify his removal from the bench. So his defenders might want to think twice about that line of attack, at least insofar as they posit that he willfully engaged in such politicking.
By the way, if you’re still unsure of what to think of John Roberts’ thought process, look who was helping him along and now has his back.
Kmiec, a rare conservative supporter of Obama in 2008 who served as his ambassador to Malta, said he thinks Roberts sought out Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote but didn’t spend much time trying to sway Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Alito. Roberts, he said, probably didn’t worry about being punished by the conservatives.
“Roberts is a bigger man than that,” Kmiec said. “He might smile and recognize that was what they were doing, but he’d also just appreciate that was their way of making a statement. But he’d not chase the tail of the dog to try to turn it around.”
Kmiec, who served a resource to Roberts as he lined up his current two-week teaching trip to Malta, said he thinks Roberts would prefer that the story of the court’s internal deliberations get out “rather than keeping it so secret that it’d have caused some hard feelings among the chambers.”
“I think he knows in his heart that he’s reached a good decision for the well-being of the court and I don’t think he’s earned any long-term enmity of the conservatives,” Kmiec said. “If anything, this will give him more bargaining ability for years to come on both sides.”
Well if he’s got Doug Kmiec on his side, what more can a man ask for than that?