Commentary Magazine


The Damage John Roberts Has Done

There are several fascinating and provocative pieces today—among them one by Sean Trende, one by Jay Cost, and one by COMMENTARY contributor Adam J. White—that argue John Roberts’s peculiar opinion in the Obamacare case yesterday is a Machiavellian masterstroke. It is, they say, comparable to the ju-jitsu practiced by the first chief justice, John Marshall, in ruling for Thomas Jefferson’s administration even as he single-handedly raised the Supreme Court to a co-equal check-and-balance on the executive branch, something Jefferson detested, in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision.

Roberts himself probably had Marshall and Marbury in mind as he crafted an opinion that seeks to limit federal power even as it allows its expansion in this single case. Which does not change the fact that Roberts’s reasoning is intellectually, ideologically, and legally perverse—willfully so, in fact. And no matter how you slice it, such perversity is not good argument, good intellection, or good leadership by the nation’s most powerful thinker.

It is not just the contradiction I point out in the New York Post today—saying the mandate is not a tax on page 15 and saying it is on page 35. That illogic runs in parallel with the simultaneous acceptance of an enormous increase in federal power while simultaneously evoking the need to limit it. It is all well and good to assert both conclusions, but they cannot be reconciled by ignoring the need to reconcile them! Roberts is far too intelligent not to know this. And yet, in the most important opinion of his career thus far, he signed his name to something that, were he a professor grading a paper in which such an argument was advanced, he would be compelled to circle three times in red with arrows pointing back and forth.

This is why my friend David Brooks’s description of the Roberts decision as “Burkean” does an injustice to Burke, perhaps the greatest polemicist in the English language, who would never have engaged in such slipshod reasoning.

A writer’s first responsibility, pace the Straussians, is unity—clarity in prose that reveals the clarity of argument. I know that a court decision is not an article but a negotiated document; even so, these decisions are intended to govern the thoughts of others, and when they indulge in casuistry, they legitimate casuistry in other courts. Roberts may want to limit federal power, but in rewriting a law’s language for his own purposes, he is effectively expanding court power in a profoundly damaging way.

If it is indeed the case that Roberts switched sides because he was worried about the political legitimacy of the Supreme Court, he made a devil’s bargain. It is meretricious decisions like these that damage its legitimacy far more than any immediate political controversy.