Just like he did back in 2012, C.J. Balls and Strikes changed his mind during the deliberations in a case that threatened the precious myth that Supreme Court decisions in the most controversial cases are something other than politics by other means:
Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote against President Donald Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, but only after changing his position behind the scenes, sources familiar with the private Supreme Court deliberations tell CNN.
The case was fraught with political consequences. Democrats and civil rights advocates claimed the query would discourage responses to the decennial questionnaire from new immigrants and minorities and affect the balance of power nationwide.
Roberts’ action recalled his dramatic switch in the 2012 case that saved President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Once again, the chief, an appointee of President George W. Bush and a reliable conservative, had sided with the liberals as a dispute of immense national significance went down to the wire.
More broadly, his moves in the census dispute demonstrate that as he begins his 15th year as chief justice, Roberts has become less predictable. He is wearing the heavy mantle of a vote at the middle of a divided bench in this new chapter of his tenure, with the 2018 retirement of centrist-conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and a solid 5-4 conservative majority.
Roberts actually does have kind of a tough job. How much shameless partisanship can the Federalist Society’s SCOTUS chapter engage in before some future Jacksonian remarks that while the chief justice has made his ruling, enforcing it may be another matter?
The census question turned out to be a bridge too far, but it was the closest of calls, as was the attempted murder of the ACA. So, thanks to Roberts’s supremely cynical realpolitik, something vaguely resembling representative democracy continues to hang on by a thread in this country, at least once in awhile, at least for the time being.