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The Roberts Court Turns Ten Today: a Look at Roberts' Mixed Legacy

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 29, 2015 12:55 PM

Today marks the tenth year of Chief Justice Roberts' reign over the Court. Originally considered as a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Roberts was nominated as Chief Justice following the passing of his former boss and mentor, William Rehnquist. During his nomination hearings, Justice Roberts said he wanted a modest court. That's not exactly what he's delivered.

From gun rights to gay rights, campaign donations to health care subsidies, the Roberts Court has overseen great changes in American law. "This is a court that really wants to be and is at center stage of American public life," according to U.C. Irvine's Erwin Chemerinsky. But the court's high profile has brought it condemnation from the left and the right alike.

John Roberts, the Conservative Ideologue

Roberts was confirmed as Chief Justice on September 29th, 2005, the first new Justice in 11 years. George W. Bush was still benefiting from his post-September 11th popularity and ready to make his mark on the High Court. Roberts was to be a solid conservative pick: he was skeptical of federal overreach, open to questioning the extent of the Commerce Clause, and had once authored a brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Conservatives promised he would be no Justice Souter, a reference to the former Justice's switch to the left over years on the Court.

For ten years, Roberts has remained conservative. InsideGov ranks him as the sixth most conservative modern Justice, above even Justice Clarence Thomas. Under his watch, the Court has accomplished major conservative goals: recognizing an individual right to bear arms in D.C. v. Heller, relaxing campaign contribution limits in Citizens United, gutting the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. A review by The Journal of Legal Studies found that Roberts was a reliable right winger, who voted conservatively "in the most closely contested cases but moderate when his vote cannot change the outcome," The New York Times reports.

John Roberts, the Liberal Turncoat

That conservative record hasn't won Justice Roberts much conservative praise lately. Despite the Court's rightward tendencies over the last decade, some more progressive opinions have slipped through. There was, of course, the recent recognition of same-sex couples' right to marry in Obergefell. (Roberts issued a strong dissent, but -- hey, it happened under his watch.)

Then there was Roberts' vote to uphold the state subsidy program under Obamacare. That involved a tortured, very non-Conservative reading of the Affordable Care Act, conservatives argued. It caused Republicans like Senator Cruz to lament that "we keep winning elections, and then we don't get the outcome we want."

What About Neither?

Roberts' rightwing leanings have also been tempered by President Obama's nominees. Bush the Second put in Roberts and Alito. (And almost Harriet Miers. Remember that disaster?) Obama was able to seat Kagan and Sotomayor, helping counterbalance the Court.

So here Justice Roberts is, ten years in. Conservatives are upset, despite the still conservative nature of the Court. Liberals hardly view him as an ally, though they've had a few good wins recently. In the future, he'll probably become even harder to box in. Justices tend to grow more independent as their tenure increases, and Justice Roberts is likely to have a long one ahead of him. At just 60 years old, he could easily remain Chief for another decade or two.

Editor's Note: Thanks to a tip from sharp-eyed reader, the use of "decent" instead of "dissent" has been corrected. We regret the air.

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