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Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Roberts Rules and Obama Cares

President Barack Obama with Chief Justice John Roberts.

President Barack Obama with Chief Justice John Roberts, January 15, 2009. Official Photo by Pete Souza.

As I approached the U.S. Supreme Court on my way to this term’s last Decision Day, I suddenly found myself literally caught between two extreme factions in the health-care debate.  One group, led by two belly dancers and a compatriot carrying a bed-sheet labeled “Single Payer,” shimmied toward two bearded anti-Obamacare protestors who shouted at the gyrating dancers, “Communists!” and “Single payer is socialism!”  Momentarily stuck between the zealots, I felt like Chief Justice Roberts, trying to find an exit strategy.

An hour later I sat in my prized seat inside the churchlike courtroom and marveled at the chief’s painstakingly crafted opinion, upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while attempting to extricate the high tribunal from a political quagmire.  Much has been made of this patently conservative jurist’s reaching a liberal outcome.  Is John Roberts the next David Souter, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, or Earl Warren—his Supreme Court predecessors who disappointed their appointing presidents by swinging to the other side of the ideological spectrum?  Probably not.  One liberal decision—albeit in a landmark case—does not a judicial career make.  In fact, on the larger issues at stake in the ACA litigation (Congress’ commerce, “necessary and proper,” and spending powers), the chief reached conservative conclusions.  It remains to be seen whether his limits on legislative prerogatives are mere “blips,” as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her stinging dissent predicted, or lasting obstacles to future liberal policy initiatives.

More important, Roberts’ opinion, partially joined by the Court’s liberal quartet (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan), reflects his historic view of the chief justice’s role.  One of his first acts after confirmation was to send staff members to Chief Justice John Marshall’s Richmond, Virginia home to retrieve the fourth chief justice’s judicial robe on display there.  Roberts wanted to model his robe after the “great chief justice,” as Marshall is called.  The act speaks volumes.  Roberts’ mentor, William Rehnquist, who as an associate justice was dubbed the “Lone Ranger” for his many solo dissents, modeled his chief justice robe after a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta character (complete with four gold metallic stripes on the sleeves!).  Assuming the Court’s center chair in the wake of the polarizing Bush v. Gore decision, Roberts explained to George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen that he hoped to increase collegiality and unanimity among the nine justices.  Unanimity produces stability in the law, he reasoned, which, in turn, leads to more public respect for the tribunal.

With the Court’s most recent approval ratings dropping to 44%, and three-quarters of Americans surveyed believing that the justices would follow their partisan inclinations in deciding the health-care case, Chief Justice Roberts faced a dilemma.  Siding with his conservative soul mates (Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) would confirm the view that the Court is just another political institution.  Instead, he assumed the uncharacteristic position of swing voter, casting the deciding vote between four liberals and four conservatives.

“These People are Taking Our Jobs”

Click "listen," then "play" above to hear the clip. Launch full screen player.

As the Supreme Court gears up to hear the Arizona immigration case, take a trip back to 1964 as President Lyndon Johnson discusses the Bracero Agreement, a controversial work program for Mexican farm laborers.

In this clip, President Johnson calls James Farmer, a vocal opponent of the program, to relay his conversation with President Adolfo Lopez Mateos of Mexico about ending the Bracero Agreement. Farmer had long been concerned that the program was taking jobs from American workers, and in this recording LBJ notes that Lopez Mateos did not object to ending the program. As hinted by LBJ in this recording, the labor arrangement did not last much longer into 1964.

Immigration Policy: Whose Line Is it Anyway?

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer meeting with President Barack Obama in June 2010 .

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer with President Obama, discussing immigration and border security issues in the wake of SB1070.

Today's guest post is from Anna O. Law, associate professor of political science at DePaul University and the author of The Immigration Battle in American Courts (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The Supreme Court will this week hear oral argument in a case about Arizona's controversial immigration law, S.B. 1070. While the national debate over immigration has become reduced to campaign trail sound bites and a general holding pattern within the Obama Administration, the Supreme Court has the potential with this ruling in the Arizona case to make an important contribution in improving immigration policy.

Barbara Perry on Presidents and the Supreme Court

Today in the Washington Post, our own Barbara Perry compares FDR's approach to addressing the Supreme Court to President Obama’s. You can read her thoughtful insights on last week's Obamacare hearings on our blog here.

Obamacare at the High Court: A Self-Inflicted Wound for the Supremes?

President-elect Obama and Chief Justice Roberts in 2009

President-elect Obama visits the Supreme Court as Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. looks on in January 2009.

When the Supreme Court hears the health care case beginning today, it steps into the political thicket, and it does so at its own peril.