Chief Justice Roberts
On Justice Roberts and the Beckett Effect
Just as I was about to conclude that almost nothing good for the American people would come from the Robert’s Court, we get an affirmative decision on the Affordable Health Care Act, While 5-4 decisions are par for the course with the Supreme Court these days, few thought the count among the Justices would break down the way it did. On a court almost evenly divided between hardcore liberals and conservatives one vote can sway a decision on monumental issues.
Usually that swing vote is Justice Kennedy, and some of the smartest legal commentators thought if Obamacare survived it would be due to Kennedy throwing his lot with the liberals. But I had my doubts about Kennedy; after reading his opinion in the Citizen’s United case, in which he said the onslaught of corporate money into the political process wouldn’t promote corruption, I lost faith in the Judges judgment. But like most people who were paying attention to the Court’s actions I was surprised that the swing vote turned out to be Chief Justice Roberts.
There were a couple of hints that Roberts might not be the same kind of rightwing automaton as the obsequious Uncle Justice Thomas, a colored lickspittle of humble Georgia origins, who was elevated to the High Court to put a black face on court decisions that arrest the progress of black people and workers. First there was the speculation of his former Harvard Professor, Lawrence Tribe that he might swing to the left in this case.
And then Roberts had recently parted company with Thomas and Scalia on the Arizona immigration laws; which led some to think he might abandon his hard right colleagues again and vote to uphold the Healthcare law. Especially since his fellow jurist Antonin Scalia has been talking like a fool lately; even parroting nonsense lines from Rush Limbaugh in legal argument. However others thought the Chief Justice’s vote was subterfuge, a thin veil to hide behind while he torpedoed Obamacare.
But events have proved Professor tribe was right. As members of the punditariat flail about for an answer to this apparent enigma, I am reminded of Thomas Beckett; who, like John Roberts, was selected by the King and placed at the head of the church of England with the expectation that he would do the King’s bidding. However when Beckett gazed upon his image in the mirror, bedecked in the grand clerical costume of the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was overcome with the gravity of the situation and dedicated himself to defend the church even against the King!
I believe John Roberts had such a revelatory moment. A thoughtful man, he must have reflected on the consequences of the Citizens United decision, when they sold our democracy to the highest bidder and set us upon the road to Plutocracy. As an intellectual with a sense of history, Roberts knows that historians will compare him to every other Chief Justice. Hence striking down the Affordable Health Care Act, after the horrendous Citizens United decision, would place him alongside Roger B. Taney in the eyes of many historians and legal scholars.
Justice Taney is remembered in history for his opinion in the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 that upheld the rights of white slave masters to own black people; which included the right to rape black women and even sell their children like piglets. Taney is famous for authoring the lines: “Black men have no rights that white men are bound to respect.”
I think the chilling realization that this was the company he would keep in the eyes of future historians overwhelmed Chief Justice Roberts as much as the fear of committing blasphemy overwhelmed Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury. And like Beckett, John Robert’s fear of the judgment of history forced him to do the right thing as he agonized: “the whole world knows Obama cares; what about me?”
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 28, 2012