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Who Is Chief Justice John Roberts?


Twice this week, the Supreme Court thrilled liberals and infuriated conservatives with its decisions, putting the spotlight once again on the man in the center chair, Chief Justice John Roberts. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: There is much more to come from the court in the coming weeks, but Chief Justice Roberts is clearly putting his stamp on the term so far. He didn't write the court's 6-to-3 opinion on LGBT employment rights, but he joined it and almost certainly assigned the opinion to fellow conservative Neil Gorsuch. Two days later, Roberts wrote the court's opinion blocking the Trump administration's attempt to revoke the Obama-era program protecting the so-called DREAMers from deportation. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who voted against Roberts' confirmation, yesterday choked up on the Senate floor.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Wow. This decision is amazing. I am so happy. The Supreme Court, who would've thought?

TOTENBERG: But Texas Republican Ted Cruz fulminated with rage.


TED CRUZ: Chief Justice Roberts has been playing games to achieve the policy outcomes he desires.

TOTENBERG: In fact, Roberts is in many ways fulfilling and defying expectations about what kind of a chief justice he would be. In almost all closely divided cases where the court's liberals and conservatives split along ideological lines, he's a firm conservative vote. He wrote the court's decision gutting the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, and he's written decisions obliterating most limits that Congress and the states have imposed on campaign money. But he also twice cast votes to uphold Obamacare. And twice in the last year, he's written decisions rejecting the way the Trump administration does its regulatory business.

Last June, he wrote the court's decision invalidating Trump's attempt to add a citizenship question to the census. In the DACA case, he said that the administration had acted arbitrarily. It had not gone through the procedures required by law. In both cases, he said, the administration could try again, doing it the right way if it wanted to. In the DACA case, for instance, advocates on both sides agreed the administration could revoke the program if it had examined and explained the policy justifications for its decision. Instead, the only justification the administration offered was that Obama's DACA program was illegal from the get-go - period.

Immigration Law Professor Lucas Guttentag says that at bottom, what Roberts was saying was this...

LUCAS GUTTENTAG: Why should the court be the bad guy? If you want to rescind it, do it right, and take responsibility for it.

TOTENBERG: Harvard law professor Richard Lazarus, who's known Roberts for decades, says that early in Trump's tenure, the chief justice ultimately gave the administration a break in the travel ban cases, barring travelers from some mainly Muslim countries. But since then, Trump has put the courts to a constant stress test. And as Lazarus sees the DACA ruling...

RICHARD LAZARUS: I think the central message here is the law applies to everybody, and that includes the president of the United States. And I'm not going to give you any breaks here.

TOTENBERG: Not everyone agrees.

JOSH BLACKMAN: Roberts has gotten in his head that the role of the chief justice is to keep the court out of the headlines and to avoid looking like a partisan.

TOTENBERG: South Texas College of Law professor Josh Blackman.

BLACKMAN: He wants to take the most narrow path possible, even if it's not the best legal analysis.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Roberts is a conservative with a small c. And in a polarized political atmosphere, he knows that if the court goes too far and too fast in one direction, the public may lose faith in the last remaining branch of government that has retained some public trust as an institution. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.