In 'The Chief,' An Enigmatic, Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts Walks A Political Tightrope Reporter Joan Biskupic portrays the chief justice as a dedicated conservative who now "has the court he's always wanted" — and she says the law "will likely be what he says it is."
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In 'The Chief,' An Enigmatic, Conservative John Roberts Walks A Political Tightrope

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In 'The Chief,' An Enigmatic, Conservative John Roberts Walks A Political Tightrope

In 'The Chief,' An Enigmatic, Conservative John Roberts Walks A Political Tightrope

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There have been 45 presidents in the history of our country but just 17 Supreme Court chief justices. The current chief justice, John Roberts Jr., is often viewed as the center point of a new hard-line conservative majority, but he makes a practice of not revealing his views. Well, now we're able to learn more about him from a new biography that is out today. And we have more from NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: After 14 years as chief justice, John Roberts remains an enigmatic figure. He's a committed conservative who's been publicly reviled by conservative politicians. He's a conservative who's the last best hope of liberals and moderates who dream, probably in vain, that he will significantly temper the court's turn to the right.


JOHN ROBERTS: We do not serve one party or one interest.

Judging is different from politics.

TOTENBERG: His public persona is charming.


ROBERTS: Can't talk about anything current, future or past, so my remarks will be brief.


TOTENBERG: And studied.

JOAN BISKUPIC: He watches what he says very carefully.

TOTENBERG: Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic has written a biography of Roberts trying to pierce that practiced facade. It's the fourth biography she's written about a sitting justice.

BISKUPIC: He was my toughest subject, start to finish.

TOTENBERG: Her provocative volume reveals much about the chief justice - from his guarded, even secretive nature, to the experiences that have changed him and, mainly, those that have only hardened his conservative outlook. Roberts was raised in the upper-middle class, nearly all-white suburbs of predominately black Gary, Ind.

BISKUPIC: Mother was a homemaker, father was a steel company executive. He was one of four children, the only boy.

TOTENBERG: He was a golden boy from the get-go, an outstanding student at an outstanding Catholic prep school who excelled at Harvard and Harvard Law School.


WILLIAM REHNQUIST: Mr. Roberts, we'll hear from you now.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court.

TOTENBERG: As a lawyer, he argued 39 cases in the Supreme Court.


ROBERTS: The petitioner's position...

Now, respondent's basic submission...

It would not surprise me to find out that 95 percent of the hospital's charging costs...

TOTENBERG: Even his appointment to the Supreme Court...



TOTENBERG: ...Had a lucky twist.


BUSH: This summer, I announced the nomination of Judge John Roberts to be...

TOTENBERG: Named to succeed Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, his nomination was quickly upgraded two months later when then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist died.


BUSH: Pleased to announce that I will nominate him to serve as the 17th chief justice of the Supreme Court.

TOTENBERG: In the years since then, his record has been solidly conservative. He's voted consistently to strike down or undermine civil rights laws. He's voted against affirmative action, against laws enacted to limit the role of big money in campaigns, against abortion rights, against same-sex marriage and for more deference to religious rights. And yet, he's been roundly denounced by many conservatives for what they view as his original sin.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He really let us down. What he did with Obamacare was disgraceful.

TOTENBERG: Roberts was the fifth and decisive vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act, and he wrote the opinion.


ROBERTS: The statute here may be upheld as a tax increase on those without health insurance, which is within Congress's power to tax.


CHRIS MATTHEWS: Today's hero, Chief Justice John Roberts...

TOTENBERG: Liberals cheered.


MATTHEWS: ...Walked to the forefront of history and said yes to progress and no to the role prescribed for him by the right. He would...

TOTENBERG: Author Joan Biskupic tells a complicated tale of how Roberts arrived at the health care decision, how - to the consternation of fellow conservatives on the court - he changed his initial vote, something that's unusual but hardly unheard of.

BISKUPIC: It certainly baffled many of the justices to his left, angered many of the justices to his right and produced a lingering sense of distrust.

TOTENBERG: Certainly, Roberts was concerned about the legitimacy of the court. The appearance of striking down a huge law enacted by Congress and thus putting the court front and center in the election campaign that year. But Biskupic also points to a more practical reason for his decision.

BISKUPIC: In the end, I think his moves were born of a concern for this important law and the business of health care, which he knew well from his days representing the industry.

TOTENBERG: There would not be a similar defection again. Roberts has stayed true to his long-held and very conservative views on issues from race to abortion.

BISKUPIC: There's this straight line from what he wrote as a young lieutenant in the Reagan years to what he writes now from the center chair of the Supreme Court.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, she reports that in the Reagan years Roberts was at the forefront of efforts to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. And on the court, while he has never explicitly called for reversing Roe, he's never cast a vote to invalidate an abortion restriction. His Reagan-era memos on race questions similarly show a young man infuriated by what he saw then and still sees now as racial preferences in a variety of spheres.


ROBERTS: I have the opinion of the court this morning...

TOTENBERG: As chief justice, Roberts has reiterated those views.


ROBERTS: ...Case 12-96, Shelby County v. Holder.

TOTENBERG: In 2013, in a case from Alabama, Roberts wrote the 5-to-4 decision striking down the centerpiece of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act which mandated federal oversight of any voting rule changes in places that had a long history of discriminating against minority voters.


ROBERTS: But our country has changed in the past 50 years.

BISKUPIC: I think that the consequences of Shelby County have been rather stark.

TOTENBERG: As Biskupic observes, immediately after the court's decision, state and local jurisdictions across the south, now freed from federal oversight, began enacting new rules making it more difficult for African-Americans and other minorities to vote. The voting rights decision may be a harbinger of things to come. Roberts, for example, did not prevail in the same-sex marriage case.


ROBERTS: I have no choice but to dissent.

TOTENBERG: It was the only time in 14 years that the chief justice has read a dissent from the bench.


ROBERTS: From the dawn of human history until a few years ago, marriage was defined as the union of a man and a woman.

BISKUPIC: At a time when American social attitudes were changing rapidly, John Roberts was not changing.

TOTENBERG: The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy last summer and the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to replace him means that, as Biskupic puts it, Roberts has the court he's always wanted.

BISKUPIC: He was no longer yoked to a centrist conservative pulling him to the left. He no longer had to woo Kennedy, appease Kennedy, deal with Kennedy. He's leading the court much more in his own image, and the law will likely be what he says it is.

TOTENBERG: Probably for a long time. At 64, he could serve another 20 years. Joan Biskupic's book is "The Chief: The Life And Turbulent Times Of Chief Justice John Roberts."

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.


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