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Roberts’ 1980s views on racial remedies remain unchanged: biography

Steve Lash//April 17, 2019

Roberts’ 1980s views on racial remedies remain unchanged: biography

By Steve Lash

//April 17, 2019

In her stirring biography The Chief, veteran Supreme Court journalist Joan Biskupic makes a compelling case that the past is prologue when interpreting the jurisprudence of Chief Justice John Roberts.

Biskupic delves into Roberts’ early career as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith and as an aide to White House Counsel Fred Fielding under President Ronald Reagan. She cites memos from that era to show that in the early 1980s the future chief justice opposed affirmative-action requirements and broad interpretations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Fast forward 30 years – in a compelling 100 pages — to Roberts’ majority opinion in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, in which the high court struck down the district’s use of race-based tiebreakers to ensure its schools met racial-makeup goals. Biskupic notes that Roberts ended the 2007 opinion – which he assigned to himself — with, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Biskupic also cites Roberts’ 2013 majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act that required states and jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against minority voters to get U.S. Justice Department clearance before amending their election laws.

“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Roberts wrote. “Today the nation is no longer divided along these lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

The chief justice’s opinions were not a surprise based on his long-held views, Biskupic states.

“While in the Reagan administration three decades earlier, he had written a series of memos arguing against federal involvement in the election practices of the states,” Biskupic writes. “He had fervently argued that the 1965 Voting Rights Act should be narrowly interpreted, a view that followed from his opposition to measures that protected groups of people based on race or ethnicity. He believed then, and believes to this day, that the focus should be on individuals who have been personally wronged.”

Published last month by Basic Books, “The Chief” – subtitled “The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts” – is the fourth biography Biskupic has written about a sitting Supreme Court justice. She also wrote the critically acclaimed “Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice,” published in 2005; “American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia,” published in 2009; and “Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice,” published in 2015.


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