Graham, Comstock, and the Chief Justice
F1@1F has from its inception been animated by my hypothesis that the Roberts Court’s docket and decisions have been shaped the Chief Justice’s sensitivity to the Court’s surrounding political climate. As such, Citizens United represented less an act of war against the Democratic-controlled White House and Congress, and more a picked battle strategically placed to cause minimal institutional harm to a conservative Court with diminished political capital. Now that oral arguments are over and the politically salient cases are finally being decided, F1@1F will focus more fully on whether this term’s opinions support or disprove the hypothesis.
Last week’s opinions in Graham v. Florida and United States v. Comstock found Chief Justice Roberts unexpectedly siding with the Court’s liberal wing on ideologically divisive questions of law and politics.
In Graham, six members of the Court voted to vacate a juvenile’s sentence of life without parole for a non-homicide crime. Justice Kennedy’s five-member majority opinion, joined by the Court’s liberal bloc, declared that all such sentences categorically violate the Eighth Amendment.
Concurring in the judgment, Chief Justice Roberts hedged with an as-applied analysis rather than categorically endorse Kennedy’s expansive Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Yet Roberts also refused to sign onto Thomas’s categorical denial of relief, despite his joining the dissent in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which outlawed the death penalty for child rape.
In a way, the Chief’s vote seems to recognize the public ambivalence towards life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. As he saw it, people are either confortable enough in theory with the laws as written that allow LWOP, but are loath in practice to trust trial judges to fairly wield such awesome power; or they are uncomfortable in theory with LWOP for juveniles, but wish the death penalty still applied when confronted with particularly heinous crimes committed by almost-adults. It was for the latter type who, like the majority, reject even the theory of LWOP for juveniles, that Roberts juxtaposed Graham, who received LWOP for armed robbery with assault or battery, with a 17-year-old who “beat and raped an 8-year-old girl before leaving her to die under 197 pounds of rock in a recycling bin in a remote landfill” and two juveniles “who together with their friends gang-raped a woman and forced her to perform oral sex on her 12-year-old son.”
Judging by his Graham concurrence and his joining the Kennedy dissent, Roberts’s own Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is more pragmatic and politically responsive than that of his eight colleagues. In undertaking a proportionality analysis, Roberts’s views are apparently guided by the shock of the crime rather than the severity of the punishment. Particular punishments are never categorically beyond the pale; only certain crimes are.
In Comstock, Roberts joined Justice Breyer’s opinion without any hedging whatsoever, thereby restoring a seemingly more expansive view of Congress’s Article I power than the Rehnquist Court would have allowed, at least before Raich. He could have joined Kennedy’s or Alito’s narrower concurrences in the judgment and thwarted a majority. Instead, he gave a fifth vote to a mode of reasoning that may dim the hopes of those challenging the Affordable Care Act.
The Chief Justice may have felt compelled to join Breyer’s opinion, which also included the rest of the liberal bloc, so to secure for the parties and future litigants a clear holding. I have difficulty believing that if the votes at conference were the same as they were at decision–7-2 to uphold as within Congress’s power a federal statute allowing for the civil commitment of sex offenders after their federal prison sentences have ended–the Chief would have delegated the majority opinion to Justice Breyer. This case had serious federalism implications, after all, and Breyer’s penchant for multi-factor balancing tests and general hostility to narrower readings of Congress’s Article I powers promised an opinion that would not sit well with the Court’s conservatives.
Two scenarios, then, come to mind. Roberts may have originally been with Thomas and Scalia in dissent, believing that Congress’s legislative powers go no further than those specifically enumerated in Article I of the Constitution. Justice Stevens, as the senior justice in the majority, could have assigned the opinion to Breyer as a reward for Breyer’s fever-pitch dissent in Lopez protesting the start of the Rehnquist Court’s ultimately incomplete federalism revolution. When Breyer’s opinion failed to attract five votes, Roberts may have switched his own, finding the opinion’s mushy language eminently manipulable to more conservative results in more important future cases.
The same pattern holds for a second scenario in which Roberts, unable to countenance freed sex offenders for the sake of federalism principles, may have voted at conference with Kennedy or, more likely, Alito. If the conference counted the votes based on reasoning rather than results, then Stevens still would have been the assigning justice.
Of course, Roberts may have simply agreed from the start with Breyer and the liberals. But even if such a thought was ideologically plausible prior to the announcement of Comstock, it just doesn’t make strategic sense for the Chief to entrust the opinion to Breyer. However, if the Chief was in the majority and did assign the opinion to Breyer, it could have been to send a message to those hoping the Court will strike down Obamacare: abandon all hope ye who enter here, for the Roberts Court will not cross the Roosevelt Rubicon.
Together, Graham and Comstock reveal a Chief Justice acutely aware of the country’s political climate and unwilling to sacrifice the Court’s institutional legitimacy for across-the-board conservative gain. There remain a handful of major cases yet to be decided, however, that could reveal a Chief Justice ready to gamble what remains of his Court’s post-Citizens United political capital on a few more battles.