Updated at 12:56 p.m. ET on July 14, 2020.
In 2007, at the end of his first term on the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts told me in an interview for this magazine that he would make it his highest priority to protect the Court’s institutional legitimacy. “There ought to be some sense of some stability,” he said, “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.” Roberts said he would try to persuade his colleagues to put institutional legitimacy first by encouraging them to converge around narrow, bipartisan decisions to avoid 5–4 partisan splits. “I think the Court is also ripe for a similar refocus on functioning as an institution,” Roberts emphasized, “because if it doesn’t it’s going to lose its credibility and legitimacy.”
In the Supreme Court term that ended on Thursday, Roberts decisively and impressively achieved his goal. At a time of greater partisan conflict between the president and Congress than any time since the Civil War, as Americans are questioning the legitimacy of all three branches of the federal government, Roberts worked to ensure that the Supreme Court can be embraced by citizens of different perspectives as a neutral arbiter, guided by law rather than politics. He helped persuade all but two of his colleagues to unite in two decisions ruling against President Donald Trump’s efforts to fight subpoenas from Congress and the New York County district attorney. He also joined 7–2 majorities in two cases involving religious liberties and a 6–3 majority in a historic decision extending federal antidiscrimination protections to LGBTQ individuals. And, in cases where 5–4 splits were unavoidable, he joined the more liberal justices in voting to maintain an important precedent protecting abortion rights and in forbidding the president to repeal the “Dreamers” program without following regular administrative procedures. During this term, Roberts also presided neutrally over a presidential impeachment trial, and criticized both Trump and Senator Charles Schumer of New York for attacking judges in partisan terms.