fb-pixel Skip to main content

John Roberts is no defender of democracy

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.REUTERS

Supreme Court Justice John Roberts defending democracy is like an arsonist scolding a child for playing with matches.

In his year-end report, the high court’s chief justice wrote, “We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”

The Voting Rights Act provided protections vital to the foundation of our democracy. Roberts gutted it.

Roberts, who has spent most of his legal career looking for ways to dismantle the landmark 1965 law, cares nothing for democracy — at least not when laws are passed to extend it to the disenfranchised. Writing for the conservative majority in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, Roberts said that jurisdictions with documented histories of voting discrimination no longer needed federal “preclearance,” or permission, to enact new laws for voting or elections.

That crucial section of the law, Roberts maintained, was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day,” and was, therefore, obsolete. In striking down one of the voting act’s key tenets, Roberts all but said that racism is no longer a fact affecting every corner of American life, including the right to vote, and that federal oversight is an overreach. He may as well have spit on the graves of those murdered for trying to make this nation live up to its promises.


Since his decision, Republicans have engaged in a level of blatant voter suppression unseen since the days of poll taxes, jelly bean counting, and arcane tests about when territories achieved statehood. States are executing voter list purges, engaging in flagrant gerrymandering, and closing precincts in communities of color. North Carolina has been especially busy, drafting a law to restrict voting rights by eliminating same-day registration, early voting, and pre-registration of high school students shortly after Roberts claimed that “40-year-old facts,” have “no logical relationship to the present day.”


In 2017, an appeals court judge struck down that law, stating that it was designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” That state’s GOP remains unbowed in its efforts to deprive black voters and others of their constitutional rights. On the last day of 2019, a federal judge blocked another voter ID law which, she said, was engineered with “discriminatory intent.”

With racism in America, the past is never past. And Roberts knows it.

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and any action that undermines the rights of eligible voters is, by its very nature, anti-democratic. So, while Roberts dares to lecture that, “We should also remember that justice is not inevitable," and that, “we should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch,” he should know that his 2013 voting rights decision will continue to undermine this nation long after he’s just another marble bust next to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was Roberts’s mentor and an ardent foe of voting rights.

In the coming weeks — or whenever House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is damn good and ready — Roberts will preside over President Trump’s impeachment trial. Some speculate that Roberts’s comments about rumor and false information were meant to chide the president’s pathological mendacity, and to warn Trump (and his supporters) that he will protect the rule of law, not the man currently residing in the White House.


Of course, Roberts taking a flamethrower to the Voting Rights Act three years before the 2016 election likely contributed to Trump’s Electoral College win. His year-end discourse on protecting democracy rings hollow when his actions have deliberately weakened it.

If the fate of our beleaguered republic rests in Roberts’ untrustworthy hands, it may already be lost.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.