Exploring one of the most powerful and influential branches of the U.S. Government, Joan Biskupic focuses her attention to the man at the pinnacle of the United States Supreme Court (USSC), Chief Justice John Roberts. In this telling biography, Biskupic explores the early years of Roberts’ life and how this helped shape him into the man who holds much power when it comes to interpreting legislative and executive policy for the United States. Biskupic begins her piece by exploring the formative years in the Roberts household, with John as its eldest child. His passion for learning saw him earn a spot at a prestigious Indiana boarding school, which would sharpen his academic wit while building on his Catholic beliefs. When Roberts was able to study at Harvard, he excelled at history, writing and studying late into the night, even when his coterie of friends were off causing trouble or meeting young women. Biskupic creates an image of Roberts as being highly focused on his studies and letting little else derail him. Roberts always had a passion for the law, finding himself on the conservative minority at a time when Vietnam was coming to an end and the country was trying to come to terms with Watergate. Still, Roberts held strong beliefs about government and its role in America, excelling at Harvard Law School and leaving his imprimatur before clerking for two influential jurists, one USSC Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It was here that Roberts learned the inner workings of the law and its interpretation at the country’s highest court. When he sought a position in the Reagan White House after the 1980 landslide victory, Roberts was able to find work and excel on the policy side, deflecting much of the liberal pushback that came his way. Biskupic credits Roberts work here with solidifying many of his strongly-held conservative views, though they were kept hidden from the public by confidential memos and some behind-the-scene work that is only now being revealed. Roberts honed his skills with appellate work for the Solicitor General’s office, a regular visitor to the USSC to make arguments in front of the justices. Always eager to be elevated to the bench, Roberts had his window of opportunity in 1992, though Senate Democrats stalled his nomination and the election of Bill Clinton nullified any chance that Roberts had of being a judge. However, this was not a time to give up, but to wait for a new (read: Republican) opportunity to have his legal mind influence federal policy. Biding his time, Roberts found appellate work with one of the prestigious law firms who did a great deal of work in the D.C. area, keeping his name on the lips of many in Republican circles.
Biskupic personalises Roberts by offering insight into his late marriage and the adoption of two children. A man of much passion for the law, he was not completely divorced from emotions and is seen to adore his family, who joined him on many of these latter journeys. Biskupic explores the reemergence of Roberts’ name as a potential jurist when George W. Bush won the presidential election in 2000. Pulling on his time in both the Reagan and Bush 41 Administrations, Roberts was able to receive a nomination to the US Court of Appeal, where he cut his teeth on ruling from the bench. However, he was not done yet, still striving for a chance to be one of ‘the Nine’. When a vacancy opened up on the USSC, Roberts was immediately on a shortlist, though nothing was certain. Biskupic explores in detail the banter with Roberts being considered for a Court appointment, including an interesting narrative that will pull the reader into the middle of the cutthroat nature of Court nomination and congressional vetting. When the opportunity for George W. Bush to put Roberts forward as Chief Justice, the ante was raised significantly. The death of Chief Justice Rehnquist left not only a hole on the Court, but the chance to shape its leadership for decades. While Roberts had only a short resume from his work on the bench, his time working for both Administrations left many Democrats wondering if he were not a serious gamble. With much of his written work product still deemed confidential, many senators could not garner the needed fodder in nomination hearings to get a thorough read of the man. Roberts, in return, deflected many of the questions and spun them, leaving vast questions when it was time to vote. Biskupic does a formidable job depicting this struggle and how Roberts overcame much of it to ensure he would sit on the Court as its Chief Justice.
Biskupic offers up some interesting analysis of policies and the approach Roberts took when he assumed the helm of the USSC. Shaping it in his own image, Roberts created a highly structured Court without coming across as outwardly dictatorial. He sought to create a Court whose decisions were based on law and not ideological leaning, a long-time criticism of Justices (based on the president who appointed them). Roberts teamed up with some of his key conservative allies and forged ahead, all but destroying the promise he made publicly. Biskupic examines some of the key cases that came to the Court and how Roberts (and other Justices) interpreted them. Established law was never safe with Roberts in the Chief’s seat, as the conservative Justices sought to use their majority to reinterpret election laws, race relations, and business values, with precedents forgotten as quickly as they could be cited. Of particular interest to the reader may be Biskupic’s analysis of the Court rulings regarding same-sex marriage, specifically how Roberts presented argument (both at oral argument and in written findings), during the latter portion of the book. Decisions on this matter that is coming to define the moderate and conservative ideologies in the 21st century show how Roberts may be leaning. Surely, since the two appointments made by Trump, Roberts finds himself firmly in the centre of the pack, right where he wants to be. This controlling factor, in Biskupic’s mind, ensures the Chief Justice has all the power to shape America as he sees fit for the foreseeable future, or at least until after 2020, should things right themselves and Notorious RBG can retire peacefully.
Joan Biskupic uses her long history covering Supreme Court cases and goings-on to shape this biography into something that will likely appeal to most readers, both those looking to explore the world of American jurisprudence and the group who wants to see how one man’s rise to a position of great power was influenced by the choices he made along the way. Biskupic does a masterful job of shepherding a great deal of information into a single book, relaying wonderful stories and anecdotes without losing the reader at any point. While the life of John Roberts is by no means done, he has done so much and experienced a great deal that his time in the centre chair of the USSC is one that comes with ideological, occupational, and personal baggage that shapes the sentiments he exudes. Biskupic offers a well-rounded exploration of the man, neither praising nor vilifying Roberts throughout the narrative. There is much to learn throughout this journey, though Biskupic assures the reader that there is so much more yet to be written. Has Roberts had an easy road to the USSC? Not by any means, but he has used all that he has done as stepping stones, something that Biskupic explores for the reader to see. With candid interviews, statements, legal excerpts from arguments and decisions, as well as some behind the scenes information not readily accessible to the public, Biskupic makes her arguments thorough and on point. Her background on cases and explanation of their progress helps any reader to put things into context as they try to tackle understanding the issues at hand. There is nothing like delving head first into a book about the law and its interpretation, creating new ideas and quelling those that portions of the population holds dear. Biskupic opens the discussion by highlighting some of those that were led by Roberts, sure that he will have more in the years to come, as the Court is shaped and reshaped extensively with each passing Court session.
Kudos, Madam Biskupic, for a stellar biography. I learned a great deal about the man at the helm of the US Supreme Court. There is more to say and I hope you will be around to share it with your readers, as you have done a masterful job up to this point.
This Book fulfils Topic #1: One Letter Off in the Equinox #7 Book Challenge. For this topic, it is interesting to see how removing one letter from CHIEF makes it CHEF, something that Roberts tends to be when mixing all the ideological spices together. Sometimes the end result is palatable, while on other occasions, it is a hot mess!
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons