WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts cemented his role as the Supreme Court’s dominant figure by siding with the four liberal justices in a trio of major rulings this month including Monday’s 5-4 decision striking down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law.
Roberts, appointed in 2005 by Republican former President George W. Bush, also joined the liberals in a 6-3 decision on June 15 backing LGBT worker rights and a 5-4 ruling on June 18 thwarting President Donald Trump’s bid to rescind protections for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants dubbed “Dreamers” who entered the United States as children.
Roberts, a traditional conservative protective of the Supreme Court as an institution, is the justice closest to being a swing vote following the 2018 retirement of fellow conservative Anthony Kennedy. The court is closely divided, with five conservatives and four liberals.
“He is clearly the court’s pivot point,” Columbia Law School professor Gillian Metzger said. “Put simply, it is truly the Roberts Court now.”
His frequency in being in the majority has been at its highest over the past decade during the current term, which began in October.
As the court’s term nears its end, Roberts has been in the majority in 50 out of 51 cases that have been decided including all 10 cases in which the court was split 5-4, according to lawyer Adam Feldman, who tracks court statistics at a website called “Empirical SCOTUS.”
The only case in which Roberts was not in the majority was an April ruling in which the court ruled 6-3 that there must be unanimous verdicts in jury trials involving serious crimes.
Roberts also was in the spotlight in February when served as presiding officer in the U.S. Senate during Trump’s impeachment trial. Roberts disappointed Democrats who had wanted an extended trial of the Republican president including witnesses, declining to expand on his largely ceremonial role.
His votes in recent cases increasingly have drawn the ire of conservative activists, who place a high value on the judiciary’s power to influence social policy.
After the Dreamers ruling, Trump asked on Twitter: “Do you get the impression the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”
“It’s part of a troubling pattern,” said Carrie Severino, president of the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative legal group that has advocated for Trump’s judicial appointments including Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
“Ironically, in an effort to appear less political, he appears to be making decisions that are in fact premised on politics,” Severino added, referring to Roberts.
Until recently, Roberts had rarely sided with the court’s liberal wing in closely decided cases. Before the court’s current term, Roberts had joined the four liberal justices in a 5-4 decision only five times, according to Feldman.
One of them in 2012 preserved the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare and considered the signature domestic policy achievement of Trump’s Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. In 2019, Roberts wrote a 5-4 ruling that blocked Trump’s administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census that critics called an attempt to dissuade immigrants from taking part in the decennial population count.
Roberts, who in his 2005 Senate confirmation hearing compared the role of a judge to a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes, has sought to portray himself as above politics. In the court’s Dreamers ruling, for example, Roberts specifically said he was not weighing in on whether the program at issue or Trump’s attempt to rescind it were “sound policies.”
Kavanaugh and Gorsuch thus far in their careers have been reliable conservative votes, though Gorsuch has shown flashes of an independent streak. For example, Gorsuch wrote the LGBT ruling for the court majority that included Roberts and the liberal justices.
Despite joining the liberals in some big cases, Roberts remains a solid conservative, as evidenced by a 5-4 ruling he authored on Monday - with all the conservatives in the majority and the liberals in dissent - handing Trump greater authority over the federal agency responsible for protecting consumers in the financial sector.
“The CFPB case delivers a big victory for the conservative legal movement,” said Deepak Gupta, a liberal appellate lawyer in Washington.
Gupta noted that conservatives have long talked about rolling back what they call overly burdensome regulations implemented by a bloated federal bureaucracy, with Roberts a receptive ally.
“The chief justice is a master at this - he knows which things will grab the headlines and which will deliver long-term conservative jurisprudence in ways that might fly under the radar,” Gupta added.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Will Dunham