Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the U.S. Supreme Court on September 29, 2005, replacing Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Roberts was born in New York on January 27, 1955, but his family moved to Indiana in 1965. He graduated first in his class from a Catholic boarding school in Indiana and then attended Harvard University. In 1976, Roberts graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, where he majored in history. Staying at Harvard to attend law school, he served as managing editor of the Harvard Law Review. Roberts graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1979.

Roberts started his legal career with two clerkships in federal courts. First, he clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then he clerked for Justice Rehnquist (whom he would eventually replace) on the Supreme Court. Roberts stayed in Washington, D.C. after this clerkship. He served as a Special Assistant to the Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice and Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan before practicing at a private law firm. Roberts then served as Principal Deputy Solicitor General from 1989 to 1993. Although President George H.W. Bush nominated him to a seat on the D.C. Circuit in 1992, the nomination lapsed without the Senate holding a vote. Roberts returned to private practice during the administration of Democrat President Bill Clinton, while also teaching at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Republican President George W. Bush nominated Roberts to fill a vacancy on the D.C. Circuit in May 2001, just a few months after Bush was inaugurated. This nomination initially stalled, since Democrats controlled the Senate. After Republicans took control of the chamber in the 2002 midterm elections, Bush nominated Roberts again in January 2003. He was confirmed in May and began serving on the D.C. Circuit in June. However, Roberts would spend only two years on the D.C. Circuit, writing about 50 opinions.

In July 2005, President Bush nominated Roberts to the seat on the Supreme Court vacated by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Rehnquist died on September 3, though, and Bush nominated Roberts for this seat instead. He went through his confirmation hearings efficiently, and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 in his favor on September 22. The full Senate confirmed Roberts by a 78-22 vote on September 29, a wider margin than any of the other current Justices. He thus joined the Court at the beginning of the 2005-2006 term.

Although Roberts is relatively conservative, he often has taken a more measured approach than the other conservative Justices. Many observers have called Roberts a judicial minimalist due to his preference for narrow rulings that leave the legal status quo in place as much as possible. For example, he wrote a concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that would have upheld the abortion restriction at issue without overturning Roe v. Wade and erasing the constitutional right to abortion. During his confirmation hearings, Roberts explained that “if it’s not necessary to decide more to dispose of a case, in my view it is necessary not to decide more.” He also likened a judge to a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes, rather than a pitcher or batter.

Selected Opinions by Chief Justice Roberts:

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007)

Topic: Equal Protection

The harm being remedied by mandatory desegregation plans is the harm that is traceable to segregation, and the Constitution is not violated by racial imbalance in the schools, without more.

Morse v. Frederick (2007)

Topic: Free Speech

A principal may restrict student speech at a school event when that speech is reasonably viewed as promoting illegal drug use.

Medellin v. Texas (2008)

Topic: Separation of Powers

The President has an array of political and diplomatic means available to enforce international obligations, but unilaterally converting a non-self-executing treaty into a self-executing treaty is not among them. The responsibility for transforming an international obligation arising from a non-self-executing treaty into domestic law falls to Congress.

Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (2010)

Topic: Separation of Powers

The President may not be restricted in their ability to remove a principal officer, who is in turn restricted in their ability to remove an inferior officer, when that inferior officer determines the policy and enforces the laws of the United States. Multilevel protection from removal is contrary to Article II’s vesting of the executive power in the President.

Snyder v. Phelps (2011)

Topic: Free Speech

The First Amendment can serve as a defense in state tort claims, including claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Whether the First Amendment prohibits holding a defendant liable for their speech turns largely on whether the speech is of public or private concern, as determined by all the circumstances of the case.

National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012)

Topic: Health Care; Powers of Congress

The individual health insurance mandate under the Affordable Care Act was a permissible use of Congress’ taxing power, but the way in which the ACA conditioned all Medicaid funding on states’ compliance with a significant expansion was not a valid use of Congress’ spending power. Also, the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate commerce but not to compel it.

Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012)

Topic: Labor & Employment; Religion

The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses bar lawsuits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimination laws.

Shelby County v. Holder (2013)

Topic: Voting & Elections

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, and its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance.

Riley v. California (2014)

Topic: Search & Seizure

Without a warrant, the police generally may not search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.

King v. Burwell (2015)

Topic: Health Care

Congress intended the tax credits authorized under the Affordable Care Act to be available through both state and federal exchanges.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer (2017)

Topic: Religion

Denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion. Thus, laws imposing special disabilities on the basis of religious status trigger the strictest scrutiny.

Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky (2018)

Topic: Free Speech

A ban on voters wearing a political badge, political button, or anything bearing political insignia inside a polling place on Election Day violated the Free Speech Clause.

Trump v. Hawaii (2018)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

The President has broad discretion to suspend the entry of foreign nationals into the U.S. By entrusting to the President the decisions of whether and when to suspend entry, whose entry to suspend, for how long, and on what conditions, Congress has vested the President with ample power to impose entry restrictions in addition to those elsewhere enumerated in the INA.

Carpenter v. U.S. (2018)

Topic: Search & Seizure

The government’s acquisition of an individual’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search.

Dept. of Commerce v. New York (2019)

Topic: Government Agencies

Agencies must pursue their goals reasonably. Reasoned decisionmaking under the Administrative Procedure Act calls for an explanation for agency action.

Knick v. Township of Scott (2019)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

A government violates the Takings Clause when it takes property without compensation, and a property owner may bring a Fifth Amendment claim under Section 1983 at that time.

Rucho v. Common Cause (2019)

Topic: Role of Courts; Voting & Elections

Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.

Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP (2020)

Topic: Separation of Powers

In assessing whether a subpoena directed at the President’s personal information is related to and in furtherance of a legitimate task of Congress, courts must take adequate account of the separation of powers principles at stake, including both the significant legislative interests of Congress and the unique position of the President. (The Court continued to list four non-exclusive considerations in this analysis.)

Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid (2021)

Topic: Property Rights & Land Use

The right to exclude is a fundamental element of the property right. A regulation granting labor organizations the right to take access to an agricultural employer’s property to solicit support for unionization was a per se physical taking.

Fulton v. Philadelphia (2021)

Topic: Religion

A law is not generally applicable under the Free Exercise Clause if it invites the government to consider the particular reasons for a person’s conduct by creating a mechanism for individualized exemptions. When such a system of individual exemptions exists, the government may not refuse to extend that system to cases of religious hardship without a compelling reason.

West Virginia v. EPA (2022)

Topic: Climate Change & Environment

Congress did not grant the EPA in Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act the authority to devise emissions caps based on the generation-shifting approach that the EPA took in the Clean Power Plan.