I’m midway through Joan Biskupic‘s excellent biography of Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts.
Roberts gets to enjoy some notoriety this week while he oversees President Trump’s impeachment trial.
For the record, I’m a big fan of Roberts. While I don’t agree with much of his politics and can be confounded by his opinions sometimes, he’s a true patriot. In many ways, he’s the antithesis of Herr Presidente; he’s studious, measured, private, meticulous and willing to work across party lines.
Last year, I knocked the biggest item remaining on my bucket list: seeing a Supreme Court case. I was even blessed to see Justice Roberts – as well as Justices Sotomayor, Breyer, Ginsberg and Gorsuch – ask questions.
I’ve been fascinated by Roberts since his nomination and highly recommend Biskupic’s book. It’s not incredibly long, but you get a sense of the man.
One of my favorite stories in it is from his days as a clerk for legendary judge Henry Friendly. The ornery judge called Roberts into his office to complain about how dark it was. Roberts noticed Friendly had his sunglasses on, but didn’t say anything. Instead, he let Friendly’s secretary know when he left the office.
The judge’s backbone has grown a lot since then. I honestly don’t like to break down justices along conservative-liberal lines because it doesn’t really work. But Roberts is the most prominent living Republican who has stood up to Herr Presidente. You’ll remember he released a statement two years ago in response to Trump calling a judge an “Obama Judge.”
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
Supreme Court Justices don’t go out of their way to criticize presidents.
Look, justices are political. It’s childish to pretend that isn’t true. Justices like Ginsberg and Clarence Thomas can pop off to the press or not excuse themselves from cases that benefit them.
And Roberts does have some connections to Trump’s defense team. For one, there’s Ken Starr, who, Biskupic points out in her book, helped bring Roberts to the Reagan administration.
But the good justices – and Roberts is a good one – can be political without being partisan. All of Nixon’s appointees rules against him in the Watergate case, for example.
Roberts cherishes the court as an institution, as evidenced by his Obamacare votes, his comments to Trump, and how he regularly carries himself away from the court. He’s not going to use this opportunity to add literal and figurative stripes to his robe as his predecessor William Rehnquist did during Clinton’s impeachment. The man is far more like Sandra Day O’Connor. Ironically, it was Roberts, who was one of the White House staffers tasked to prep O’Connor for her confirmation, who was originally tabbed 25 years later to replace her.
I’m sure this trial will be over before I’m done with Biskupic’s book. One of the few benefits of this sham will be if Americans get to know Roberts a bit more. He could help instill more trust in his cherished institution. And he could remind the nation of actual conservative patriotism.