The Extreme Partisanship of John Roberts's Supreme Court

Like Barack Obama, the chief justice came into office promising an age of apolitical comity. And like the president, he has seen his dream die.
Larry Downing/Reuters

“Politics are closely divided,” John Roberts told scholar Jeffrey Rosen after his first term as chief justice. “The same with the Congress. There ought to be some sense of some stability, if the government is not going to polarize completely. It’s a high priority to keep any kind of partisan divide out of the judiciary as well.”

No one who observes the chief justice would doubt he was sincere in his wish for greater unanimity, greater judicial modesty, a widely respected Supreme Court quietly calling “balls and strikes.” But human beings are capable of wishing for mutually incompatible things—commitment and freedom, for example, or safety and excitement. In his desire for harmony, acclaim, and legitimate hegemony, the chief was fighting himself. As he enters his 10th term, his quest for a non-partisan Court seems in retrospect like the impossible dream.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 term began with oral argument in a divisive, highly political case about campaign finance and concluded with two 5-4 decisions of divisive, highly political cases, one about public-employee unions and the other about contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In all three cases, the result furthered a high-profile objective of the Republican Party. In all three cases, the voting precisely followed the partisan makeup of the Court, with the five Republican appointees voting one way and the four Democratic appointees bitterly dissenting. In all three cases, the chief voted with the hard-right position. By the end of the term, the polarization Roberts had seen in the nation had clearly spread to the Court. In fact, the clerk’s final gavel on June 30 did not signal even a momentary respite from the bitterness.

The day after the decision, 14 religious leaders sent a letter to President Obama asking for a new kind of religious exemption. Many religious charities provide various social services under contracts funded by the federal government. Obama had proposed rules banning government contractors from discriminating in employment against gays and lesbians. The singers wanted religious objectors to be free to continue policies of excluding them from employment. There was certainly language in the opinion to encourage those hopes. Could religious objections now override a civic commitment to equality?

That was Tuesday. On the Thursday after it left town, the Court issued an emergency order permitting a religious non-profit institution, Wheaton College, to reject for the time being the “accommodation” that the Hobby Lobby majority had hailed as the solution to religious objections to contraceptive coverage. In her Hobby Lobby dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had pointed out language in the majority opinion suggesting that the majority was not serious about this accommodation; many read the emergency order as signaling the same thing. The order also revealed a bitterly divided Court. In a dissent for herself and the Court’s other two female members, Justice Sonia Sotomayor directly accused the majority of bad faith: “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” she wrote. “Not so today.”

Less than a week after it left town, the Court had found new fissures within itself; those fissures had spawned fissures within the country. As a result of Hobby Lobby, the nation would no longer simply be divided into red and blue states. Now, increasingly, Americans would work for red or blue companies.

In fact, it seemed, America now has red and blue justices on its highest court.

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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