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The man at the determinative center of the law

The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts by Joan Biskupic, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 420, March 2019 ISBN 978-0465093274

When Justice Anthony Kennedy retired at eighty-two in 2018, the Supreme Court became Justice John Robert’s in name and reality. In the last term, the Court had delivered more fractious 5-4 rulings than usual. The ideological conflicts among them had spilled out with greater spite. Justice Kennedy’s influence on the law in America cannot be overstated. He had held the key vote in so many cases that the Roberts’ Court was sometimes known among lawyers and the news media as the Kennedy Court. Kennedy’s retirement changed the Court and gave Roberts more control. In The ChiefJoan Biskupic says that Roberts has an uncanny ability to size up a situation and calibrate his responses. His longtime associates compare him to a master of three-dimensional chess who anticipates all the possible moves his opponents might make.

Joan Biskupic says that, even from the beginning of his tenure, Roberts could count on four like-minded votes for most of his positions: those of Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito although Justice Kennedy split off on some social issues, most notably involving gay rights and abortion. But, with the help of Kennedy’s vote, Justice Roberts prevailed to eliminate campaign finance regulations, erode the Federal Voting Rights Act, and expand opportunities for the expression of religion in public places. Joan Biskupic says that two decisions that defined Roberts Court were the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder. Respectively, these rulings made it easier for corporations and labor unions to influence the outcome of elections and sharply reduced the ability of African Americans and other minorities to block discriminatory electoral practices. Shelby County capped Roberts’s decades-long effort to limit the reach of the Voting Rights Act.

Joan Biskupic argues that these and a series of other 5-4 rulings, including the decision that would transform labor union funding in June 2018, buttressed the perception that the Court majority was politically motivated and that Roberts was engaged in the partisanship he claimed to abhor. If the Chief Justice had a single message for the public, it was that the Court was above politicking. He told an audience in 2016, “We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans. Roberts understands that public regard was crucial to the Supreme Court’s stature in American life. He has studied the reputation of past chief justices and has worried about what history would make of him. This is why Roberts has at times set aside his ideological and political interests on behalf of his commitment to the Court’s institutional reputation and his own public image. In 2012, when he voted to uphold the healthcare overhaul known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, he outraged conservative justices. He had first voted behind closed doors with other conservative justices to invalidate the law. But then he changed his vote. Roberts may be grayer but is in good health. Now in his fourteenth year on the Court, Roberts can preside for another twenty years. That makes it all the more imperative to know the man who now sits at the determinative center of the law in America.

The Chief is a splendid interpretive history of the Supreme Court under Justice John Roberts. Joan Biskupic provides new perspectives on how Justice Roberts has run the Court since he became the chief in 2005 and how he will be directing it after he is no longer shadowed by Justice Anthony Kennedy. By discussing some important past cases, Joan Biskupic tries to predict how the Supreme Court will reshape the legal and political history of the nation. It is designed as much for students and experts of law as for lay readers. On the whole, it is balanced, nuanced and enjoyable. The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court is one of the few persons who shape the political and legal history of the nation. This makes it important for a larger audience to read this book.

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