Chief Justice Roberts as cultural weathervane

April 8, 2010
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Among Chief Justice John Roberts’ remarks yesterday in Indianapolis was a statement about the difficulty the U.S. Supreme Court encounters in trying to reach consensus. It isn’t like Congress, he noted, where compromise comes with the job.

Indeed, roughly a third of the court’s decisions last year were the 5-4 splits along ideological lines for which this court has become known. Conservatives prevailed over the liberal wing again this year in the widely criticized decision striking down campaign finance limitations on corporations.

In effect, Roberts implied, on some decisions a justice is conservative or liberal, and there isn’t a lot middle ground.

The distinction is one pondered by Gary Roberts, the dean of Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, which hosted the chief justice on campus.

Just what makes people conservative or liberal, anyway? Gary Roberts asks rhetorically. The law itself seldom makes people lean one way or the other, he observes. Rather, conservatives and liberals bring their ideological lenses to the law.

Conservatives tend to believe people will behave badly if strict rules aren’t in place and applied, Roberts opined, while liberals are more likely to see people as fundamentally good and willing to do the right thing if given enough leash.

“It arises in how people see each other and how we see humanity,” Roberts says. “And they’re both right.”

As an aside, Gary Roberts, who considers himself smack in the middle, believes his faculty would average out slightly to the left of center, while most law schools are decidedly in the liberal academic mainstream.

Regardless of how the current justices came to their philosophical underpinnings, four consistently put up conservative opinions, and a fifth, Anthony Kennedy, often sides with them.

So, after the liberal Warren court and the more centrist Burger and Rhenquist courts in the last half of the 20th Century, the pendulum continues to swing back to the right.

How do you feel about the direction of the Supreme Court? Does the conservative tilt reflect how Americans want to see the law interpreted?

  • really?
    "Conservatives tend to believe people will behave badly if strict rules arenâ??t in place and applied, Roberts opined, while liberals are more likely to see people as fundamentally good and willing to do the right thing if given enough leash."

    If this is true why is it our uber liberal government is pushing for more reform and rules on every part of the private sector...because they believe that they can't be trusted to do the rigth thing on their own? Or taking over healthcare and crushing private lending. Hmmmmm.....something doesn't add up.
    • no kidding
      I thought conservatives define themselves by wanting less government--thus less legislation. Seems like the law school dean tends to bring his own lens as well.

      It's rose colored.
    • It's complicated
      Conservatives say they want less government, but this is not categorically true. Conservatives want MORE government intrusion, and more laws, when it advances their ideology, or serves their constituents. For example, conservatives want more laws to allow guns in the workplace, to allow guns in city parks, to prohibit abortion, to ban same-sex marriage, etc.

      Liberals typically want LESS government regulation in areas in which conservatives want more government, such as marriage and family issues, and vice versa, for the same reasons.

      I think a better generalization is to say that conservatives tend to see things in black and white, tend to want to maintain the status quo, do not like change, and tend to be uncomfortable around people and in situations that are not familiar to them.

      Liberals tend to be more comfortable with uncertainty, to be able to see nuances, to be willing to take risks, go outside their comfort zone, and to engage people who are not exactly like themselves, and enter situations that are not familiar to them.

      But at some level we are all Americans and we all want the best for ourselves, each other, and our country. Compromises should be able to be made when these objectives are at stake.
    • Who controls government now?
      With the cost of election skyrocketing, and the only ones able to afford supporting candidates are corporatoi0ns and their paid lobyist organizations, the Congress ofthe United States has become a tool of corporate will, a will that calls for less government control and a blind eye to their ripping off of hundreds of millions of honest working Americans. We have become a "corporatocracy", on our way toward pure fsacism, not only politically, but uncivilly as well. Were the ordinary citizen to do with members of Congress what Lobbyists and corporate executives have been doing, they would be jaled for attempted bribery. Yet the millions continue to roll in to the campaign funds, and the anonymous fund-raising affairs raise millions more, and there is no-one powerful enought to end it.
      /and I don't think we can afford that many new federal prisons.
    • that's just wrong
      by "taking over the health care system" you must mean the Romneycare, republican plan for health insurance reform that dems passed obama signed.

      Gosh... what crazy, life-controlling liberal ideas republicans come up with.

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