Chief Justice John Roberts could have taken down President Barack Obama's entire, massive health care law. He could have prevented the Supreme Court decision that largely disabled the most disputed aspects of Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants.
He didn't do either, and in the process surprised (or dismayed) longtime court observers of every political stripe.
Those two outcomes in the finals days of his seventh year on the court offer some clues for reassessing what kind of chief justice Roberts is and intends to be. Is he no longer the rock-ribbed conservative loved by supporters and jeered by opponents? Has he become a pragmatic leader mindful of the court's place in history? Is he more canny, but still solidly conservative?
The measure of a justice is best taken after decades of service, rather than a few years. At age 57, Roberts could lead the court for another quarter-century.
But at the very least, the end of the Roberts Court's most consequential term already is leading to revised, and in some cases more nuanced, appraisals of his leadership.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a liberal scholar who is dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine, announced that the era of the Roberts Court had begun. "He authored the opinion in the most important case in his seven years on the court, and did so against what was expected," Chemerinsky said.
In truth, Roberts' vote to uphold Obama's health care law was not so much a surprise.
He long had been counted among the possible votes to uphold the law. But it was widely assumed that if Roberts ultimately voted for it, so too would Anthony Kennedy, most often the decisive vote in closely fought cases. It was only the second time in his tenure that Roberts provided the deciding vote for the side favored by the court's liberals.
Had Roberts gone the other way, the court would have wiped away the entire health care overhaul, which is the outcome embraced by dissenting Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Kennedy.
Just three days earlier, Roberts, joined by Kennedy this time, sided with three liberal justices in the Arizona immigration case.
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