THE CHIEF. The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts.
By Joan Biskupic. Basic Books. 432 pages. $32.
“You wonder if you’re going to be John Marshall or you’re going to be Roger Taney. The answer is, of course, you are certainly not going to be John Marshall. But you want to avoid the danger of being Roger Taney.”
— John Roberts, Chief Justice, Supreme Court of the United States
John Roberts presides over the Supreme Court of the United States. He is the 17th person to sit as the court’s chief justice. Is he a conservative or a moderate? Or is his goal to reaffirm the court’s position as a neutral arbiter of the law of the land?
Joan Biskupic explores the personal and professional history of The Chief and puts into context his actions as leader of the Supremes. Biskupic is uniquely positioned for this work. She has covered the Supreme Court for The Washington Post and for USA Today. Also, she has written books about other justices: Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Sonia Sotomayor.
John Roberts’ academic credentials are impressive. At age 13, he wrote a letter to the head of La Lumiere, a newly established Catholic boarding school in northern Indiana, to request consideration for admission. He was accepted, and graduated first in his class. He was La Lumiere’s first graduate to be accepted to Harvard University.
During his address to his fellow La Lumiere graduates, his words of wisdom focused on the importance of persistence: “…unlike many other keys to success … persistence is entirely, entirely within your control.”
Biskupic follows that theme throughout the biography, showing how Roberts persisted at La Lumiere, during his undergraduate years at Harvard, during his years at Harvard Law and during his profession of the law in his political life beginning in the Reagan administration and leading to his being appointed Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Roberts’ statement about Marshall and Taney is enticing, and Biskupic helps understand where the Chief falls between those two by providing accounts of many of the cases heard by the court during Roberts’ tenure. While her accounts are in-depth, they are easily understood by those who are not trained or practiced in the law.
To provide a brief description of the benchmark by which Roberts expects to be judged, Marshall was a Federalist who believed that the Constitution prescribed a strong federal government and that it was his duty to guide the court, which made it a disinterested arbiter of cases at law pertaining in some way to the Constitution. He succeeded in making the judiciary branch of government an equal partner with the legislative and executive branches. The Constitution and legal precedent were his touchstones.
Roger B. Taney’s political views were different from those of the Federalists, and his leadership and decisions show that he put his own political opinion ahead of precedent and made uncommon suppositions about the letter and intent of the Constitution. He tried to subvert the Lincoln administration during the War Between the States because he sympathized with the states in rebellion.
Biskupic’s portrait of the private John Roberts (from childhood to now) reveals the extent to which she researched her subject and a clue to why the justices respected her enough to give her a level of access that must be rare.
To lead the reader through the discovery of the “real” Chief Justice Roberts, Biskupic provides unprecedented insight into the workings of the court and the interactions among the nine justices. Her descriptions of the mechanics of the court reveal her high level of access to the members and the understanding of their mission and the political pressures put on them, most recently by the president of the United States, who characterizes judges in partisan terms.
When Donald Trump labeled a judge who had ruled against the administration as an “Obama judge,” Roberts issued this statement:
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
Biskupic has crafted an excellent prelude to the future of the Roberts Court at a time when we will begin forming opinions about where John Roberts falls on the Marshall-Taney scale of jurisprudence. The book also can function as a primer for anyone looking for a career in government.