The chief stands alone: Roberts, Roe and a divided Supreme Court

Sabrina Willmer, Bloomberg News on

Published in Political News

On a U.S. Supreme Court dominated by an ambitious conservative wing, Chief Justice John Roberts has become a man on an island.

The 67-year-old chief justice, appointed in 2005 by Republican President George W. Bush, is a conservative trying to chart an incremental course for a court that would rather take giant leaps.

In the historic abortion ruling released Friday, Roberts tried to find a middle ground. He issued his own opinion joining the conservative majority in support of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion law, but siding with the court’s three liberal justices in opposing the majority’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

It’s not the first time Roberts has taken a position that conflicts with his fellow conservatives. He sided with liberal arguments in dissenting opinions on a Texas abortion law in September, an Alabama voting district in February, and an environmental case in April. He’s become the target of angry conservatives who say he doesn’t fight enough to push their views.

On abortion, Roberts “wasn’t able to control the direction of the court,” said David Gans, a civil rights lawyer at the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center. “There is huge daylight between his position and the majority’s position.”

Roberts, a staunch protector of the court’s institutional legitimacy, has historically sought incremental changes in constitutional law over time rather than big shifts all at once, and the abortion case was no different.


In a separate opinion on Friday, Roberts said he’d have supported a restriction after 15 weeks of pregnancy — the same as the Mississippi law the court was reviewing — rather than ditching Roe entirely as the conservative majority did. In overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the court left it up to states to decide if and when abortion is legal.

“Both the court’s opinion and the dissent display a relentless freedom from doubt on the legal issue that I cannot share,” Roberts wrote. “I am not sure, for example, that a ban on terminating a pregnancy from the moment of conception must be treated the same under the Constitution as a ban after fifteen weeks.”

No other justice joined in his opinion.

Roberts’s waning influence has coincided with dramatic changes in the composition of the court. Former President Donald Trump appointed three conservative justices and was vocal about only choosing candidates who would vote to overturn Roe. First was Neil Gorsuch and then came Brett Kavanaugh, who replaced swing vote Anthony Kennedy, who sided with liberals on gay marriage and, for the most part, abortion.


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