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The critical role of ‘guarded’ Chief Justice John Roberts

With the country feeling deeply polarized and a Supreme Court that has moved to the right under President Trump, the role of Chief Justice John Roberts is attracting increased interest and scrutiny, including in "The Chief," a new book by Joan Biskupic. Judy Woodruff talks to Biskupic about the pivotal justice's “guarded” personality, drive to achieve and hallmark judicial decisions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There have only been 17 chief justices of the United States. The current one, John Roberts, is serving an increasingly critical role, as the vote that could tip the balance, one way or the other, in many high-profile cases to come.

    What drives his decision-making? And how has he carried out the duties of a chief justice over his 13-plus years on the job?

    Well, that's at the heart of a new biography: "The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts." It's author is veteran Supreme Court analyst Joan Biskupic.

    Hello, Joan. Welcome to the program. And congratulations on the book.

  • Joan Biskupic:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, why now? He's been on the court, as we said, for over a decade, but presumably many years to go. He's 64 years old.

  • Joan Biskupic:

    That's exactly right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why now?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    Well, I started this book in 2015, when Justice Scalia was still alive, Anthony Kennedy was in control, and I wanted to look at how a chief justice manages the tensions between the right wing and the left wing and how John Roberts, who so many people don't understand and recall only from his 2005 confirmation hearings, what he was all about.

    What makes him tick? Should he be defined by his 2012 health care decision? Or should he be defined by so many of his rulings on the right wing? And as I was working on this book, so much changed. Justice Scalia died, and then just this summer, Anthony Kennedy leaves, and, suddenly, my subject becomes not just the chief justice, but the controlling vote on the bench.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you said, so many people feel they don't know him. Do you think you know him, after spending time with him on the book and otherwise?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    Well, I definitely know him better. I think I understand more his sense of drive, his determination, his focus, his effort at control.

    But he is very guarded. And in our sessions, he was very guarded throughout. He has a barrier around him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You write extensively about growing up, I mean, his early years, coming to Washington as a young man — he has been — he was here for years before he went to the court — and bringing this very solid core of conservative beliefs with him.

    Where did that come from?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    His sense of timing was amazing, Judy, because he came from conservative roots. And he emerges at a time when the country is becoming more conservative.

    Ronald Reagan wins in 1980, and when he gives his inaugural speech, John Roberts is listening to him, and he says: "I felt the call."

    And his first job after his judicial clerkships was working in the Reagan administration for Ken Starr. And he became a real lieutenant of the Reagan agenda, and always had that emphasis reinforced through the years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In recent years — and you mentioned the health care, the Affordable Care Act decision, where justice — the chief justice came down on the side of President Obama and what he had done with the Affordable Care Act.

    People questioned, is he — is he the conservative that they thought he was?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    Well, in that vote, as my book lays out, he originally wanted to strike it down. That's how he cast his vote in the conference, the private conference with his fellow justices after the three days of oral arguments.

    And then he changes. He decides he doesn't want to imperil the entire Obamacare law, and he switches his vote, not once, but twice on different elements, and then starts to work with two of the liberal justices. And the outcome is exactly the opposite as it might have been.

    And I think that reputation he got from that ruling as much more of a moderate sticks in the public mind. But, Judy, if you look at things like his votes on race or religion, he is much more hard-core conservative.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Should we look for him to be the voice of the court in the middle in the future or not?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    I think that's exactly what's going to happen now, because think of where we were in 2012. It was an election year. All eyes were on the court. Things seemed very polarized.

    But how quaint it seems looking back now, 2012 to 2019. Things are all the more polarized. President Donald Trump has increasingly politicized the judiciary. And I think John Roberts feels much more of an institutional sense of mission here, and he's so aware of his key vote in the center.

    So I think he will constantly engage in a balancing act between his conservative roots. Will he hew in that direction, or will he think more of the reputation of the court and, frankly, his own reputation?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, it's that he's been affected by the times…

  • Joan Biskupic:

    I definitely think so, yes, yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … that he's living through?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    Well, even think about what he said last November, when he rebuked President Trump, when he said, there are no Obama judges, there are no Trump judges, there are no Bush or Clinton judges, to try to correct what the president was saying when he was criticizing judges based on the president who appointed them.

    But the truth is, Judy, that all of these individuals come to the Supreme Court chosen by a president with certain political desires.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, in so doing, he's also angered many conservatives who thought they could count on him to always be a reliable conservative vote. Is he prepared to stand up to that?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    In 2012, when he voted the way he did, Justice John Paul Stevens said to me, that took a lot of courage because he knew he was going to be angering his base. And he knows that.

    He knows he's angering the base as he goes along, I mean, the base that — frankly, it's not his base anymore. And, as you remember, the rallying cry of Republicans used to be, no more David Souters. David Souter was the appointee of George H.W. Bush who ended up more liberal.

    But even when President Trump was choosing Neil Gorsuch Brett Kavanaugh, there was an interest among his advisers not to have someone who would turn out like John Roberts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you also had a sentence that sticks out. Near the end of the book, you write, "Some associates do not trust Roberts and think his diffidence is strategic, that he is not always acting in good faith, that he is not an honest broker."

  • Joan Biskupic:

    That's true. That's true. And some of it is the fallout from the health care decision, when he switched his vote two times.

    Part of that reserve that he has and that sense of that there's a perception that he's cagey, frankly, that he is more strategic and tactical than straightforward — and I think the public might think that would be just how liberals perceive him. But he actually has plenty of skepticism from those to his right.

    And, look, they're appointed for life. There's incentive for them all to get along. But there still is lingering distrust up there.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating. It's a fascinating book, "The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts."

    Joan Biskupic, thank you.

  • Joan Biskupic:

    Thank you, Judy.

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