The Perfectionist

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Klaidman

A lifetime of order, upended by Obamacare. How Chief Justice John Roberts will handle it.

The day after the Supreme Court announced its bombshell health-care decision, Chief Justice John Roberts joked that he would be fleeing to Malta. It's "an impregnable fortress island," he quipped at a judges' conference in Pennsylvania. "It seemed like a good idea."

Roberts did indeed leave Washington for the Mediterranean island nation, where he taught a two-week class on the history of the Supreme Court. His real refuge, however, was Hupper Island--a small bit of land nearly kissing the coast of Maine where he and his family bought a modest vacation home in 2006. Roberts arrived on Hupper Island in early August and quickly settled into the soothing summer rituals that help him unwind and escape the pressures of his job. He puttered around in his little outboard motorboat, hiked along the island's winding trails through lush meadows and birch groves, and took the kids to the nearby general store for ice-cream cones. But this year there was an addition to the routine: Roberts had a security detail trailing his every move. With the toxic climate that followed the health-care decision, court officials were leaving nothing to chance.

For many Democrats, Roberts's Obamacare ruling was an act of judicial statesmanship that saved the Supreme Court from becoming a virtual arm of the Republican Party. For the right, which had championed his elevation to chief justice, it was an ideological stab in the back. But for Roberts himself, it was arguably the apotheosis of a jurisprudential and personal struggle years in the making--between his staunch conservatism and his attachment to predictability, social harmony, decorum, and propriety. "John's caution is very deep-seated," says a former colleague who would speak about the chief justice only on the condition of anonymity. "He doesn't like surprises." In voting to uphold health-care reform, Roberts showed deference to the elected branches of government, averted a direct clash with a president from an opposing party in the heat of a national election, and strengthened the court's institutional legitimacy as a neutral arbiter of the law. The court's public image, however, remains extremely divisive. And inside the court, Roberts's own last-minute vote change seems to have inflamed his conservative colleagues. Now, as the chief justice prepares to take up the gavel for his eighth term, tackling such politically fraught issues as affirmative action, gay marriage, and voting rights, he presides over a court awash in recriminations and leaks: just the kind of disorder and unseemliness that John Roberts has spent his whole life avoiding.

To understand Roberts's psychology, it helps to begin with a moment that he would probably like to forget: his administering of the presidential oath to Barack Obama.

A rock-ribbed Republican, Roberts almost certainly did not vote for Obama. But he enjoys the pomp and ceremony of his job and was looking forward to the small but highly visible constitutional role he would play during the swearing-in ceremony. A new book on the relationship between Roberts and the Obama White House by journalist Jeffrey Toobin reconstructs the elaborate planning that led up to the quadrennial ritual in cinematic detail. Toobin reports that Roberts relentlessly rehearsed the 35-word oath. His wife, Jane, joked that her husband had repeated the oath in their suburban home so many times, "the dog thinks it's the president." During a run-through a few days before the inauguration, Roberts shunned a notecard that had the text of the oath on it. He would rely on his memory. (A Supreme Court spokeswoman said she was unable to confirm Toobin's account.)

But when the moment came, Roberts bungled it. Obama briefly jumped the gun, which flustered the chief justice. He dropped some words and said others out of order. …