Issue #239

The devastating, sneaky genius of John Roberts’ opinions

Chief Justice John Roberts' mild rhetoric packs plenty of bite.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ mild rhetoric packs plenty of bite.

Chief Justice John Roberts. has an unparalleled talent for making the sweeping seem small and the sharp seem mild. His rhetoric is all about sounding reasonable and earnest, even if (especially if) the outcomes of his rulings are anything but. He’s a champion of the long game. He’s Scalia’s stylistic opposite, the no-bombast justice. Isn’t it lucky for conservatives to have them both? Roberts is at his minimizing best in his opinion Wednesday striking down a key portion of the post-Watergate campaign-finance laws. Congress may still “regulate campaign contributions to protect against corruption or the appearance of corruption,” he declares, and then whittles the definition of corruption down to a little nub that has nothing to do with how donors actually buy influence. And then Roberts tells Congress it can still achieve the ends of fairer and cleaner elections, it just has to alter the means it chose for getting there. Never mind that this Congress will do no such thing, just as it has failed to take up Roberts’ invitation last June to pass a new version of the Voting Rights Act. And also never mind that Congress had lots of evidence to support the means it already chose. Within the four corners of his opinion, it’s Roberts who gets to sound patient and wise. Emily Bazelon, Slate, 4-2-14.