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Chief Justice Roberts, in full control, steers the Supreme Court to a surprising term

David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opened its term in October facing major cases on gay rights, guns, abortion and religious schools, as well as on President Donald Trump's effort to repeal the Obama-era policy that has protected young immigrants known as "Dreamers."

The stage seemed set for a sharp move to the right. Conservatives had celebrated in 2018 when Senate Republicans narrowly confirmed Brett M. Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who had occupied the court's center. Before, there had been four reliable conservatives; this year, for a full term, there would be five.

But the term that ended this week took on a dramatically different tone than conservatives -- or many others -- expected, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts firmly in control and steering the court on a middle course.

Led by Roberts, the justices dealt a defeat to Trump by rejecting his repeal of the program that shields Dreamers from deportation. They ended the term Thursday by ruling the president can be required to turn over his tax returns and financial records to a New York grand jury.

The court also staked out new ground on abortion, gay rights and apparently on guns.

Roberts cast the fifth vote to strike down a Louisiana abortion law that could have shut down most of the state's clinics, saying he did so out of respect for precedent. Remarkably, the precedent came from a Texas case in which he had dissented.

 

For now, the chief justice looks to be standing in the way of a conservative drive to repeal the right to abortion. He appears to be playing a similar role in gun cases. And he signed onto a landmark decision by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch that vastly expanded job protections for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans.

The reaction from conservatives was harsh.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a former clerk for Roberts in 2007, took to the Senate floor the day after the gay rights ruling to declare it "represents the end of the conservative legal movement or the conservative legal project as we know it."

"Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn't like me?" Trump tweeted after his loss in the case involving Dreamers.

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