SCOTUS Deep Dive: What’s Really Going On With John Roberts?

OPINION | This article contains commentary which reflects the author’s opinion.

Guest Author, S. Christopher Michaels, wrote the article below. Look for more of his material here at

John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, has lost his mojo. If this were baseball, we’d say he’s in a slump. If it were football, we’d wonder if he was nursing an injury through a long and grueling season. Since it’s politics—I know, SCOTUS is ‘above’ politics—and there isn’t an age-out requirement (see Exhibit A: Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters), we have to speculate about what changed this once outspoken jurist.

Given Chief Justice Roberts’ reliable position quarterbacking monumental cases, why is he shrinking in front of our eyes?


Breitbart News reported this week that SCOTUS sided with two California churches in a 6 – 3 decision to overturn a Covid-19 restriction. Roberts sided with the majority in this case but offered chilling words worthy of further investigation. His written opinion included the statement that “federal courts owe significant deference to politically accountable officials with the background, competence, and expertise to assess public health.”

On its face, this seems to be nothing more than a textualist deferring to state elected officials. Yet, Roberts has shown a penchant for flair in his rulings. Early in his tenure on the Supreme Court, he seemed to be the conservative jurist George W. Bush believed him to be. Roberts has crossed Party lines on numerous occasions, though, causing some to question if he’s conservative or liberal. In January 2021, Heavy offered a delicate piece (oxymoronic, if you ask me) trying to set the record straight about the Chief Justice’s political leaning. The only takeaway from their investigation is that Roberts sees himself as an objective umpire.

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My eyebrow raised when I read that narrative. In his written responses during his 2003 confirmation to the federal appeals court, Roberts claimed he doesn’t follow a singular interpretation of the Constitution. Instead, he applies a contextual interpretation based on each case’s merits and how the Constitution’s provisions allow for interpretation in that case.


We are left with a Chief Jurist in our country choosing to defer on legal questions of varying complexity based on a belief that the Constitution allows him to punt cases of which he wants no part. Generally, SCOTUS does steer clear of cases that are either already covered by legal precedent or ask the Court to intervene on a question where they have no standing. That is not what we see from Roberts lately. Let’s review the last six months of his ‘decisions:’

  • October 2020: Roberts sided with liberal judges in the majority opinion to permit PA to count non-postmarked ballots three days after the election.
  • November 2020: Roberts sided with liberal judges in a dissenting opinion that NY can restrict worship in churches.
  • December 2020: After the Court asked the Defendants to prepare opposition briefs in the Texas case against the November election, SCOTUS rejected the claim for lack of standing under Article III of the Constitution.
  • January 2021: Roberts recused himself of the second impeachment trial for President Trump on the basis that since Trump was no longer POTUS, the Chief Justice could not preside.
  • February 2021: Roberts sided with the majority opinion in the California churches case while offering dubious ‘deference’ for state officials a mere three months after siding with the states on a similar case.

Aside from the Texas case, where no jurist offered public dissent, Roberts has taken contradictory positions—even against his previous positions—that show a Supreme Court Justice decidedly playing politics.

How can we believe Chief Justice Roberts wants to be the ‘umpire’ when he intervenes in the Pennsylvania case less than one month before the election?

How can we believe Chief Justice Roberts when he says in November that a state can keep churches closed while saying in February they cannot?


How can we believe Chief Justice Roberts acts as the Court facilitator when he refuses to preside over the second impeachment hearing on a technicality?

We’ve seen strange behavior from John Roberts over the last six months. It’s been counterintuitive to the jurist he claimed to be when appointed to the federal appeals court and later the Supreme Court. Of course, jurists can—and do—evolve over a lengthy time on the bench. I can’t help but wonder if Roberts has evolved into someone who doesn’t want to tackle the significant cases because he’s more concerned about his public image. He’s flipped more times than a Belgian waffle. We can only speculate as to why.

As always, this has been the World According to Chris.


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