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    John Roberts’ Politics Come Second to the Supreme Court’s Legitimacy

    Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts attends President Joe Bidens State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, February 7, 2023.
    Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

    • Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the liberals on the Supreme Court in key cases this term. 
    • But the conservative justice isn’t softening his political stance, a SCOTUS researcher told Insider.
    • Instead of advancing conservative issues, Roberts seems more concerned with the legacy of the court.

    This term, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the Court’s liberal justices in key cases involving voting rights and the power of state legislatures in federal elections in moves analysts described as “shocking” and “surprising” for the longtime conservative judge.

    Hardline conservatives have soured on the chief justice for his opinions siding with the Court’s liberal justices in recent years. Some critics have labeled Roberts — appointed in 2005 by George W. Bush to replace staunch conservative William Rehnquist — as a turncoat for his vote in 5-4 decisions upholding Obamacare and, later, in backing government regulators.

    While some have speculated whether Roberts’ views have gotten more liberal with age, the chief justice last year voted to weaken laws ensuring abortion access and sided with conservatives this year to shoot down affirmative action, student loan relief, and roll back protections against anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.

    Despite Roberts’ votes on major conservative issues, his reputation, especially among members of the GOP, has evolved from that of a hero to a traitor.

    “There’s a couple different ways of thinking about what’s happened,” Justin Crowe, a professor of political science at Williams University who researches the Supreme Court, told Insider. “Is it that other justices are just more conservative and Roberts just now looks more moderate by comparison? Is it that Roberts’ views have actually changed and moderated over time? Or is it that Roberts is a bit concerned about the kind of institutional legitimacy of the court and has approached things in a somewhat more moderate way?

    Crowe added: “I don’t see a lot of evidence that Roberts has become more liberal over time, certain justices have, but I’m not sure I see that terribly much with Roberts. I think the other two explanations hold more weight for me.”

    Compared to the take-no-prisoners absolutist approach of Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito, Crowe noted, Roberts’ incremental approach to interpreting law may appear far less conservative. But at the same time, the chief justice hasn’t suddenly become a liberal icon. Instead, Crowe said, Roberts is focused on something more significant than any singular case.

    “I think part of what we’re seeing is Roberts consciously trying to be a little more moderate or consciously trying to have the court seem a little less aggressive, a little less activist, a little more incremental,” Crowe told Insider. “Roberts’ is the one whose name will be attached to this — it is the Roberts Court. And decades from now when these individuals are retired and have passed away, and people read about them in history books, Roberts’ name is going to be the one who is attached to the court from 2005 until whenever he leaves — and I think that weight is heavy for matters of legacy.”

    Roberts has spoken out in heartfelt defense of the Supreme Court as an institution despite increasing criticism regarding ethics concerns and partisanship, saying last year that it is a “mistake” to view critiques of the Court’s decisions as questioning its legitimacy, The Washington Post reported.

    But in recent terms, Roberts’ voting record has shifted slightly, according to an analysis by The New York Times. The Times found in this term, the chief justice voted less often with the conservative majority and voted with liberal Justice Elena Kagan 14% more than the last term.

    “I think Roberts has looked for opportunities to kind of pull back on the reins, to just slow things down, and to maintain some sort of semblance of an idea that law should not be read one way by conservatives and another way by liberals,” Crowe told Insider. “And I think Roberts perhaps has more of a concern with that kind of perspective because he’s in the Court’s center chair, because his name is attached to it, because it’s his legacy.”

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