Chief Justice Roberts as cultural weathervane

  • Comments
  • Print

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

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?

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.