Welcome to the archives for NewsTalk, an IBJ blog published from November 2007 through December 2010.

Chief Justice Roberts as cultural weathervane

April 8, 2010

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?

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