“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.