John Roberts is Donald Trump’s opposite. Unlike the president, the chief justice is cautious, reflective and deeply respectful of the nuance and history underpinning America’s constitutional system. In four recent major cases, where Roberts sided with the court’s more liberal justices, he displayed a virtue that is nowhere to be found in President Trump’s DNA: moderation.
The surprising string of cases started when Roberts joined a majority of justices in holding that the Civil Rights Act’s workforce protections protect gay and transgender employees. Supporting this dramatic increase in gay and transgender rights came as a surprise from Roberts, a political conservative and lifelong Catholic. But Roberts’ vote is consistent with a strong trend among the American people toward recognizing such rights.
Next, Roberts joined the liberal justices in a 5-4 decision holding that DACA — the wildly popular Obama-era program protecting young immigrants from deportation — may continue. There is a growing consensus in the U.S. that DACA recipients should be protected, even if the battle over immigration in other areas remains fierce. Roberts’ vote prevented a raw, partisan majority of justices from terminating this popular program.
Roberts then joined the court’s liberals in striking down Louisiana’s law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges in local hospitals. Just four years ago, in a nearly identical case, the court held the same thing. Roberts’ vote prevented a simple change in personnel — Justice Kavanaugh replacing Justice Kennedy — from flipping the court to the opposite conclusion. Continuity in the court’s jurisprudence — a touchstone of judicial moderation — was Roberts’ guiding principle.
Finally, in the last case of the term, Roberts rejected Trump’s argument that he, as president, is immune from basic legal processes. Roberts’ opinion authorized a New York prosecutor to continue seeking Trump’s tax returns. In doing so, Roberts emphatically reaffirmed the principle that no person — even the president — is above the law.
Roberts explained his overarching judicial philosophy during his 2005 Senate confirmation. “Judges have to have the humility to recognize that they operate within a system of precedent shaped by other judges equally striving to live up to the judicial oath, and judges have to have modesty to be open in the decisional process to the considered views of their colleagues on the bench.”
Roberts’ willingness to forgo short-term political victories in the name of broader, long-term considerations is in stark contrast to President Trump. Roberts’ November 2018 response to Trump slandering a federal judge as an “Obama judge” underlines the differences between the two men: “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.”
Donald Trump has spent his presidency sowing divisiveness and waging a zero-sum battle for narrow, party-line victories. He has cast aside long-term principles that hold our system of government together. And he has rattled the American people with one knee-jerk partisan maneuver after another. With this string of cases, John Roberts reminds us that sanity and rationality still exist in government. He is doing what he can to calm the storm.