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book review

John Roberts: the focus is on the man in the middle

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.REUTERS/2014 file

A remarkable set of Harvard students took their degrees in June 1976. There was Yo Yo Ma, destined to become perhaps the world’s greatest living cellist. There was Jill Abramson, who would become the first female executive editor of The New York Times. And there was John G. Roberts Jr., who in time would sit “at the exact center, the determinative center, of the law in America.’’

That description of the chief justice comes at the beginning of “The Chief,’’ the new biography of Roberts by Joan Biskupic, the CNN legal analyst who has written biographies of Roberts colleagues Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Sonia Sotomayor. What timing. This book comes as interest in the court is sky high, a fact made plain during the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. With the bench listing to the right all eyes are focused on Roberts and how he may wield his outsized influence. Buskupic’s take? Roberts “is leading a Court increasingly in his own image,’’ she writes, adding that he “is positioned at the center in every way and the law will be what he says it is.’’


From first to last, this is an approachable volume about subjects often unapproachable. Biskupic, who has covered the Supreme Court for a quarter century, captures the tensions within the group, the interplay among the justices, and the pressures brought to bear on them by outsiders — and, not least, by their colleagues. With seven interviews with Roberts accounting for more than 20 hours of conversation, “The Chief’’ is an ample and amiable companion to such insider accounts as “The Brethren,’’ the classic 1979 book by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, and “The Nine,’’ the influential 2007 book by Jeffrey Toobin.

Biskupic shows how, from the start, Roberts was at work assembling a gold-plated resume: a top Indiana prep school, Harvard and then Harvard Law, two federal court clerkships, including one with the man who would be his predecessor as chief justice, William Rehnquist, before winning a position in the Reagan Justice Department with Ken Starr (later to win fame, or opprobrium, as Bill Clinton’s grand inquisitor). Through it all he developed strong feelings about voting-rights legislation and affirmative action. Mostly he was against them.


But for all that, Roberts was, and is, no creature of Washington, nor of the conventions of the capital, though he adopted the ever-upward ethos of working Washington, assuming an ever more prominent role and battling both government remedies for social problems and government assistance to abortion. By the time he joined the D.C. circuit court those inclinations had hardened into ideology.

It was a circuitous route that took him to the chief’s perch at the Supreme Court. George W. Bush selected him to replace O’Connor but soon after Rehnquist died an even more alluring vacancy emerged. He won Senate confirmation as chief with precisely the argument that won him the original support of Bush, once the co-owner of the Texas Rangers: “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.’’

He was confirmed by a 78-22 vote. One of the dissenters was Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

The youngest and least experienced member of the court he would lead, Roberts displayed impressive political skills in a job he would repeatedly describe as being above politics. In the beginning there were rough patches. He clashed with Justice David Souter, a man not known for range wars or, for that matter, for even the mildest confrontation. He wanted high-court unanimity but rarely got it. He knew he headed what would become known as the Roberts Court and had definite ideas about how it would be conducted — and how it would be remembered.


Biskupic shows us times when Roberts didn’t get his way. And she traces how, through his tenure, his conviction that, in race and other matters, people should be considered as individuals rather than members of a group shaped his views and decisions. Identity politics was not for him.

He emerged as the principal advocate for judges (in pay matters) and for the independence of the judiciary (even upbraiding President Trump for some of his more provocative attacks on courts). But for all his efforts to assert judicial impartiality, Buskupic argues, his role in the Citizens United decision, which permitted unrestricted expenditure for election ads, clearly identified him with corporate interests.

Roberts will be remembered, however, just as much for his role in upholding Obamacare and here Biskupic provides us a surpassingly clear analysis: “A pro-business conservative he understood the importance of the insurance industry to US businesses, and he was genuinely concerned about invalidating an entire law that had been approved through the democratic process to solve the intractable health-care problem.’’


In his dissent in the same-sex marriage case, Roberts asked: “Just who do we think we are? This is a court, not a legislature . . . We have to say what the law is, not what it should be.’’ And in that vote Biskupic sees the essential Roberts:

“[O]ver the course of his legal life, a time when American social attitudes were changing rapidly, John Roberts was not changing. Central to his personality was a constancy, an immovability. He was fixed in his views.’’ For readers of Biskupic’s biography, Roberts, too, will become fixed in their views.


The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts

By Joan Biskupic

Basic, 432 pp., $32

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David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.