“John Roberts Throws a Curveball”

I have written this piece for the NY Times. It begins:

The Supreme Court’s voting rights ruling on Thursday in Allen v. Milligan is as shocking as it is welcome. The Voting Rights Act has lived to see another day, with implications for 2024 and beyond.

The court ruled that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act requires Alabama to draw a second majority-Black congressional district in which its voters can elect the candidate of their choice. In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh and Sonia Sotomayor, the court also reaffirmed Section 2’s constitutionality and beat back Alabama’s arguments that the race-conscious statute should be read in a race-neutral way.

Milligan is not a ruling that expands minority voting rights. But had the dissenting justices — Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas — gotten their way, it would have decimated effective minority representation as Congress, statehouses, county and school boards and city councils became much whiter and less broadly representative.

The big mystery is why Chief Justice Roberts would write an opinion confirming that race-based remedies in politics are sometimes appropriate, given his role in 1982 as President Ronald Reagan’s point man opposing the expansion of Section 2, his 2013 opinion in Shelby County v. Holder striking down as unconstitutional another key part of the act and numerous recent decisions reading the act narrowly.

It’s possible that he had a change of heart, but it’s more likely that his institutionalist side kicked in.

He may have sided with Black Alabamians because he has genuinely changed his skeptical views about race-conscious remedies since he wrote the opinion for Shelby County, a case he did not even cite in his opinion in Milligan. He could have seen Milligan as simply applying well-settled precedents. But as recently as last year, when Alabama sought a stay before the 2022 elections of the lower-court ruling the court just affirmed, Chief Justice Roberts suggested rethinking or tinkering with those precedents even as he opposed the stay. (Justice Kavanaugh joined the other conservatives in imposing the stay, but he said he did so because the lower-court ruling came too close to the election, not on the merits of Alabama’s arguments on appeal.)

But perhaps a more plausible answer for the chief justice’s blinking is that he could foresee the additional social upheaval and opprobrium that would have been generated against the Supreme Court had it ended significant minority representation in Congress and statehouses. Showing the court as an institution sometimes willing to side with minority plaintiffs could prove very important, especially if, as expected, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh soon join the other conservative justices in rejecting race-based affirmative action in college admissions….

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