by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The defining moment of the Supreme Court’s just-completed year was not any single case, or the unprecedented oral arguments during the covid-19 crisis, or even Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s role in President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. It was the chief justice’s publication of a letter, on New Year’s Eve, urging the nation not to take democracy for granted — and declaring the federal judiciary to be a “key source of national unity and stability.”
It would be difficult to describe more succinctly the chief justice’s vision for the court’s own labors: unity and stability. This, more than any other imperative, defined the justices’ work this term — and is the key to understanding where Roberts seeks to steer the court in the future.
The court made impressive showings of unity in several of its most politically fraught cases. These included 7-to-2 supermajorities to preserve subsidies that reduce insurance companies’ financial risks under the Affordable Care Act; to affirm religious organizations’ exemption from federal contraceptive coverage mandates stemming from ACA regulations; and to protect religious schools’ First Amendment exemption from employment laws regarding their teachers and other ministers.
And, in perhaps the year’s most famous cases, seven-justice supermajorities rejected Trump’s broad assertions of immunity against subpoenas from the House of Representatives and a New York district attorney, while also affirming that Congress and prosecutors must meet high standards of proof to show that their subpoena requests are justified. Given the contentious nature of those cases, the justices could easily have fractured along familiar 5-to-4 lines. Yet Roberts marshaled broad agreement among different mixes of conservative and progressive justices.
Meanwhile, stability was a guiding principle as justices grappled with prior precedents.