In the wake of the whole Obamacare/ACA ruling new narratives have been emerging from both right and left about how the unlikely makeup of the majority decision was reached. I’ve heard nuanced stories of Roberts joining Scalia at first and then jumping over the “liberal” bloc at the last minute for reasons unknown. There are also some idiotic ideas that it’s some sort of master stroke that the President’s signature domestic policy accomplishment was affirmed by SCOTUS because Roberts said it was a tax, thus giving Republicans a talking point. I guess it’s possible that the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States of America spend their time trying to devise schemes to slip good talking points for Sean Hannity into their decisions, but I doubt it. The larger lesson I think to draw here is while we can learn about the forces acting on political actors like Supreme Court Justices or other politicians, we can never really know what goes on inside their heads, it’s just too complicated and there are just too many unknowns. Call it the existential principle of politics.
This is not necessarily a principle unique to American democracy. Throughout history powerful leaders have made decisions and changed in ways in high office that often times defy explanation compared to their previous views. By the late 1300’s the Catholic Church-that is the only Church is Western Europe-had been divided for decades between two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon in a series of events scholars now generally refer to as the “Papal Schism”. By the close of the 14th Century there was an overwhelming demand to heal this wound and return to one Pope and one unified Church from both within the Church and without. A massive series of events began in 1392 that included theologians at the University of Paris wrestling with the question of how to use scripture and theology to force two Popes—that is two representatives of God on earth—to accept political compromise (have fun with that one), a referendum on solutions that 10,000 Parisians voted on, the sudden death of the French Pope and a desperate ride that covered 400 miles in four days bearing the letter of the King of France seeking an end to the schism. The most favored solution proposed by the University was simple; both the French and Roman Popes would mutually abdicate and a new compromise Pope would be chosen. Not unlike picking a dark horse railroad lawyer from Illinois to head up the ticket. The Cardinals gathered and proceeded to pick for the new French Pope one of the biggest proponents of ending the schism, Cardinal Pedro de Luna of Aragon who was elected as Pope Benedict XIII. Barbara Tuchman in her great book on the 14th Century “A Distant Mirror” tells what happened next:
The second French embassy heard the news on their way to Avignon. On their arrival, the new Pope assured them of his intent to pursue every means of ending the schism and repeated his statement that he would abdicate if so advised as easily as taking off his hat, which he lifted from his head in illustration…He had accepted election only to end the “damnable schism,” and would rather spend the rest of his life in “desert or cloister” than prolong it.
De Luna of course never ended the schism; he refused to abdicate and made it worse than it was before.
So why did he do it? Because he became greedy for power once he became Pope? Because he never wanted to end the schism and just said he did to gain support? Because he wanted to but kept putting it off until circumstances made it more likely he would succeed in ending it? I have no idea; your guess is as good as mine. An important fact about political leaders is that their reasons and motives are often too difficult to ever truly understand. Do they mean what they say or are they just saying it to gain support? Are their actions part of a grand scheme or merely improvisations to get through the day? Have they changed since their election to the Holy See or confirmation to the Supreme Court? These are questions that there are few answer to, if any. Just look at the Iraq War and tell me why we went to war in the first place? What did Bush, Cheney, Rummy and Wolfowitz really “want”? What were their real goals? Was the decision to invade the sum of all its parts, or once the push for war began did it take on a life of its own? None less than Colin Powell's deputy Richard Haass has said “I believe I will go to my grave not knowing why we are in Iraq.”
So don’t try to find a snazzy narrative for why Roberts did what he did. Look for trends in his decisions and forces that might have influenced him, not clever arguments or political stratagems. What he said in his confirmation hearings seven years ago might not be all that goes on under that overgrown middle school haircut of his.