The ‘Enigma’ Who Is the Chief Justice of the United States

When Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement in 2005, Bush nominated Roberts to take her place. Before he was confirmed, however, Chief Justice Rehnquist died, and Roberts, in an upgrade, was named to succeed him.

At his confirmation hearing, Roberts played down his highly ideological Justice Department work and famously insisted that he saw his role as judge to be like an umpire. “Umpires don’t make the rules,” he told the Senate, “they apply them.”

Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who was beaten in 1965 while protesting for voting rights in Alabama, spoke for many in the civil rights community when he declared that Roberts was “on the wrong side of history” and urged senators to oppose him. Roberts was confirmed, however, by a 78-to-22 vote.

Roberts has, with few exceptions, been the sort of hard-line ideological chief justice his conservative backers hoped he would be. He has presided over a court that has swept away campaign finance regulations, most notoriously in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which invalidated a well-established ban on corporations spending money to elect candidates. After one particularly sharp ruling against desegregation plans that school districts adopted voluntarily, Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared that Roberts had “made the court an arm of the Republican Party.”

Roberts also continued the war on voting rights that he had begun as a young lawyer, writing an opinion in a 2013 case that critics called “a dagger to the heart of the Voting Rights Act.” Roberts has been particularly meanspirited in gay rights cases. When the court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark ruling recognizing a constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples, Roberts wrote a dissent comparing it to the infamous Dred Scott decision, which rejected an enslaved man’s suit for freedom. Even Richard Posner, a court of appeals judge nominated by Reagan, called Roberts’s dissent “heartless.”

Biskupic all but throws up her hands toward the end of her narrative, calling Roberts an “enigma,” but she suggests that he is pulled by two often-conflicting instincts. One is ideological: a desire to move the court rightward on race, religion and other issues. The other is institutional: an interest in the court being respected and seen as nonpolitical.