The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts

  • By Joan Biskupic
  • Basic Books
  • 432 pp.
  • Reviewed by Kenneth Jost
  • June 11, 2019

An insider's look at the reign-in-progress of the Supreme Court’s top judge.

The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts

The veteran Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic opens The Chief, her long-awaited biography of Chief Justice John Roberts, by describing him as "hard-wired from birth for success." By fortunate happenstance, Biskupic discovered during her research the evidence to perfectly embody the ambition that took Roberts from being the smartest boy in his class to presiding in the top position in the federal judiciary.

At age 13, Roberts applied to a prestigious Catholic preparatory school with a letter written in elegant cursive that ended with his hope to "get the best job by getting the best education." Once enrolled, Roberts excelled at the school, which later posted his application letter as a trophy of sorts.

Over the next 30 years, he continued to excel in uninterrupted succession at Harvard College, Harvard Law School, two prestigious judicial clerkships, and a stellar career as Supreme Court advocate in the solicitor general's office and in private practice.

Biskupic, a friend and colleague for 30 years, is both charmed and awed by Roberts, who granted her more than 20 hours of off-the-record interviews. She exploits her extraordinary access and three decades of Supreme Court reportage and analysis to provide, as she did in three previous Supreme Court biographies, intimate insight into her subject's persona and illuminating (if thinly sourced) scuttlebutt about Roberts' less-than-perfect relations with his colleagues.

In her subtitle, Biskupic promises an account of Roberts' "life and turbulent times," but the account makes clear that Roberts has been untouched and largely unaffected by the turbulences of his formative years.

His namesake father was a white-collar plant manager for Bethlehem Steel when the company and its union were found to have violated federal civil rights law through hiring and promotion practices that disadvantaged African-American applicants and employees.

As a lawyer and judge, Roberts has argued and ruled against racial remedies aimed at combating historic and present-day discrimination against African Americans.

Biskupic traces Roberts' political conservatism at least as far back as his days as a Harvard undergraduate in the final years of the Vietnam War. Roberts was "not apolitical," but he generally avoided involvement in the issues of the day. He was put off by some of the anti-war protests and seemingly uninterested in the era's other historic movements: civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights.

To this day, Roberts declines in interviews to try to explain his fixed view against racial remedies, as seen in his controlling opinion in the 5-4 decision in his second term as chief justice to limit school districts' ability to engineer racial diversity in pupil assignments.

It was in that decision that Roberts famously reduced his civil rights jurisprudence to a single sentence: "The way to stop discriminating on race is to stop discriminating on race," he wrote. Seven years later, Justice Sonia Sotomayor threw that quote back at him in an acid comment in another civil-rights-related case.

Roberts reached the Supreme Court a decade-plus after the one and only setback in his star-blessed career: when Senate Democrats blocked his 1992 nomination by President George H.W. Bush to the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia. A decade later, Bush 43 succeeded in getting Roberts confirmed to the DC Circuit and, four years later, chose him to succeed the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor.

Roberts charmed George W. Bush, according to Bush's later account, though his conservative advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, were less impressed. Then, as luck would have it, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died, and Roberts was elevated pre-confirmation from associate justice-to-be to chief-justice designate.

As first-among-equals chief, Roberts quickly instilled a "little more relaxed" atmosphere than prevailed under Rehnquist, according to the court's senior liberal justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But interpersonal relations have not always been smooth. Roberts sharply rebuked Justice Stephen G. Breyer during oral arguments in a 2017 case for asking counsel for outside-the-record information. The extended rebuke, recounted by Biskupic, came four years after Roberts had himself injected outside-the-record voting data into oral arguments to buttress his eventual decision to gut the federal Voting Rights Act.

Biskupic quotes — and evidently agrees with — the high praise bestowed on Roberts for his "tireless preparation" and "powers of persuasion." She also relates such charming episodes as young Jack Roberts' prancing around the White House stage when his father was being introduced as the next Supreme Court justice. Then, after his confirmation by the Senate, Jack asked, naively, "Daddy, do you get a sword?"

Even without a sword, Roberts is hardly the "modest judge," the politically neutral umpire that he claimed to be during his Senate confirmation. Instead, as Biskupic writes, Roberts "did not entirely shed his partisan thinking once he donned the black robe." Through 13 terms, Roberts has "successfully steered the law in America" by reversing liberal precedents and establishing new conservative benchmarks. But, in the recent past, the court's further tilt to the right has been paused by Roberts' unanticipated votes in two decisions to save Obamacare and by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's occasional alignments with the liberal bloc in such decisions as the decision guaranteeing marriage equality to same-sex couples.

Kennedy's retirement, combined with President Trump's appointment of two reliably conservative justices, now gives Roberts added influence for the foreseeable future. "The Court," Biskupic writes, "was now Roberts's in name and in reality." He sits now "at the determinative center of the law."

Barely halfway through his likely quarter-century tenure, Roberts worries already about his legacy. As the nation's 17th chief justice, the smartest man in the room accepts that he will not equal the great chief justice John Marshall. But he hopes to steer an often-fractured court through turbulent times deftly enough to avoid being likened to Marshall's discredited successor, Roger Taney.

Kenneth Jost is author of Trending Toward #Justice and the annual series Supreme Court Yearbook. He is a graduate of Harvard College and Georgetown Law School and has covered law and justice as reporter, editor, or columnist for more than 40 years. His blog is Jost on Justice.

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