“In Voting Cases, Chief Justice Roberts Is Alone but in Control”

Adam Liptak for the NYT:

In a little over a week, the Supreme Court issued five sets of orders in election cases. In three of them, Democrats prevailed.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote an opinion in only one of the cases, and it was only a paragraph long. It sketched out a distinction that no other justice endorsed. But that distinction can explain every one of the court’s orders.

The distinction pressed by the chief justice was this: Federal courts should not change voting procedures enacted by state legislatures, and they also should not step in when state courts or agencies change those procedures.

The something-for-both-sides approach is broadly similar to Chief Justice Roberts’s recent record, in which he voted with the court’s liberals in cases on gay rights, immigration and abortion; joined the court’s conservatives in major cases on religion; and wrote the majority opinions in cases on subpoenas seeking President Trump’s financial records that rejected his broadest claims but did not require immediate disclosures.

Chief Justice Roberts’s deft judicial work last term meant that he was in the majority in divided decisions at a higher rate than any chief justice since at least 1953. Scholars debated whether that was evidence of principle or pragmatism, noting that the chief justice has tried hard to shield the court from charges that it is a political body.

In the election cases, too, the chief justice’s rationale staked out a middle ground, one that was consistent with conservative ideas about federalism even as the court’s other members seemed to take all-or-nothing approaches. The court’s more liberal members said the right to vote was important enough to justify letting federal judges alter state election rules. And its more conservative ones said the Constitution prohibits all changes to voting rules enacted by state legislatures, even ones supported by state courts or state officials.

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