Friday, July 13, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Chief Justice Roberts makes his mark

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
July 13, 21012

Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision to join the liberal wing of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of President Barrack Obama’s health care reform law has been described as “jaw dropping.”

Why did Roberts break from his conservative colleagues on such a high profile case?

The inner-workings of the Supreme Court are almost impossible to penetrate. The court's private conferences, when the justices discuss cases and cast their initial votes, include only the nine members—no law clerks or secretaries are permitted. Traditionally, the justices have remained very secretive about their private conferences.

Two recent Time Magazine covers may provide some insight. On June 18, 2012 Justice Anthony Kennedy graced the cover with the following title, “From Gay Marriage to Obamacare [Justice Kennedy is] The Decider.”

Roberts has led the court for seven years, but Kennedy has been the deciding vote in a number of important cases during Roberts’ tenure. Until this term, Kennedy was the decisive vote in a number of cases where conservatives and liberals were evenly split -- including abortion, gay rights, election law, capital punishment and campaign finance.

Kennedy was also the deciding vote on a number of high profile criminal justice decisions. He was the deciding vote in Roper v. Simmons (banning the execution of juveniles) ; Graham v. Florida (juvenile life without parole for non-homicide) ; and Lafler v. Cooper (providing constitutional protections to plea bargaining).

Last week, Roberts rocked the jurisprudential world and lo and behold ended up on the cover of Time Magazine. The July 16, 2012 Time cover contends, “Roberts Rules.” Being on the cover of Time Magazine may not be enough to sway a justice. But, respect for the court and an appreciation for one’s place in history might be enough.

CBS News reported that Roberts is keenly aware of his leadership role on the court, and he is also sensitive to how the court is perceived by the public.

There were countless news articles leading up to the health care decision warning of damage to the court -- and to Roberts' reputation -- if the court were to strike down the law.

Some informed observers outside the court reject the idea that Roberts buckled. They believe that he realized the historical consequences of a ruling striking down a landmark law. 

Kennedy is no longer the court’s wild-card. The Roberts Court is truly his own. With a full docket of criminal cases facing the justices this fall, Roberts may be poised to exert his influence on law and order issues as well.

Here’s a look back at last term’s treatment of criminal justice issues:

1. Search and seizure;
2. Plea bargains;
3. Juvenile life without parole;
4. Sentencing and crack cocaine;
5. Jail strip searches.

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