You might remember John Hood’s recent column describing U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts as a clever wimp in the wake of his surprise ruling this summer in the case challenging the 2010 federal health care reform law. Newsweek‘s Daniel Kaidman offers a different take:
For many Democrats, Roberts’s Obamacare ruling was an act of judicial statesmanship that saved the Supreme Court from becoming a virtual arm of the Republican Party. For the right, which had championed his elevation to chief justice, it was an ideological stab in the back. But for Roberts himself, it was arguably the apotheosis of a jurisprudential and personal struggle years in the making—between his staunch conservatism and his attachment to predictability, social harmony, decorum, and propriety. “John’s caution is very deep-seated,” says a former colleague who would speak about the chief justice only on the condition of anonymity. “He doesn’t like surprises.” In voting to uphold health-care reform, Roberts showed deference to the elected branches of government, averted a direct clash with a president from an opposing party in the heat of a national election, and strengthened the court’s institutional legitimacy as a neutral arbiter of the law. The court’s public image, however, remains extremely divisive. And inside the court, Roberts’s own last-minute vote change seems to have inflamed his conservative colleagues. Now, as the chief justice prepares to take up the gavel for his eighth term, tackling such politically fraught issues as affirmative action, gay marriage, and voting rights, he presides over a court awash in recriminations and leaks: just the kind of disorder and unseemliness that John Roberts has spent his whole life avoiding.
The divisiveness might make more sense to Klaidman if he realized that a politically crafted ruling with a shaky basis in law is no basis for strengthening the court’s “institutional legitimacy.”