Grassley v. Roberts

Why do conservatives increasingly despise John Roberts?

Anger and rebuke have not been in short supply of late. Nor have they been confined to Republican presidential politics — although the Big Apple tabloid putdowns of Sen. Ted "We all know what New York values are" Cruz may have hit the high note for outright hostility. Former President Bill Clinton got a dose of comeuppance as well from Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia. In such an extended fit of pique, it might be easy to overlook the fiery speech Sen. Charles Grassley gave on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

What or who caught the ire of the 82-year-old Republican from Iowa who serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee? Was it Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia? Was it the Democrats who have so loudly protested his unwillingness to even conduct hearings on the nominee? Was it his fellow Republican senators who have decided to meet with Judge Garland?

No, it was Chief Justice John Roberts who apparently got Senator Grassley riled up by lamenting how the process of selecting justices for the Supreme Court has become so politicized with votes falling along party lines — a point he made in early February, incidentally, before Justice Scalia's death on Feb. 13. Mr. Grassley's belated response was that it was Justice Roberts who was turning the nation's highest court into a political institution.

Wait, what?

Here's the senator's "logic," and we use that term advisedly. Because Mr. Roberts supported court rulings that twice enabled key provisions of the Affordable Care Act to be enforced, he has politicized the court by taking the side of "policy preferences" over "constitutional text and rendered decisions." He had, as conservatives like to say, legislated from the bench instead of "calling balls and strikes," as Mr. Roberts so famously described the job in his own confirmation hearings.

That is, of course, a pretty infantile argument. It allows Mr. Grassley or any other self-appointed expert on constitutional law to make a similar claim every time a justice interprets the law in a manner that is not lock-step with the critic's own. But this view of Justice Roberts among conservatives — that he somehow betrayed his principles — certainly seems to have caught on in the right-wing bubble. It feeds into Republicans' argument that only they should select Mr. Scalia's replacement: You just can't trust these judges.

What applesauce, as Mr. Scalia liked to say. If one of the bedrock principles of the Supreme Court, and the nation's judicial branch generally, is independence, it is these moments when the courts follow their own understanding of the law — and not that of the president who nominated them — that should be celebrated most. This is how true justice is crafted, not by fealty to a political party's understanding of the Constitution.

Supreme Court justices have frustrated presidents and political parties before. President Dwight Eisenhower once called his appointment of Earl Warren to the Supreme Court the biggest mistake he ever made. Justice Harry Blackmun is often mentioned as someone whose views drifted leftward while serving on the court: A lifelong Republican and appointee of President Richard Nixon, he is now remembered as one of the court's most liberal justices and the author of Roe v. Wade.

Yes, there are justices whose understanding of the law seems set in stone, such as Clarence Thomas. But that doesn't make them less political, as many legal experts view it as evidence of exactly the opposite — justices who are rigid and narrow-minded because they view the world through political blinders. The reason justices are given a lifetime appointment to the bench is not to follow the guidance of a Charles Grassley but to make choices unfettered by politics.

Shame on Senator Grassley for suggesting that Justice Roberts has somehow betrayed the institution when it is the judiciary chairman who seems to be bent on rewriting the Constitution — not only to limit President Barack Obama's authority to fill a court vacancy but now to imply that the chief justice has somehow sabotaged the court. Apparently, Mr. Roberts' decisions that are anathema to liberals such as Citizens United or the weakening of the Voting Rights Act are simply correct interpretations of the Founding Fathers' intent. Iowa voters, take note: Your six-term senator deserves to be put out to pasture, if only for sheer soft-headedness.

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