A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: Rolling Stone Magazine

Chief Justice Roberts and “The Oath”

By Gillad Matiteyahu

Back in 2009, before I entered law school, I read “The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court”, by Jeffrey Toobin. At the time, reading about the behind-the-scenes workings of the legal world’s most powerful individuals reinforced my interest in going to law school. So, when Mr. Toobin’s next book came out — “The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court” — I was eager to read it.

While I wouldn’t recommend “The Oath” with the same passion as I would “The Nine”, I believe it would interest anyone curious about Supreme Court politics. Mr. Toobin’s new work sheds light on many little-known facts surrounding the major decisions of the Roberts Court.

The book begins by focusing on two Harvard Law graduates: Chief Justice John Roberts and President Barrack Obama. In preparation for the oath of office ceremony in 2009, the Chief Justice’s administrative aides contacted the Obama administration to determine the precise words, the pace, and the intonations of the oath. But these communications never reached President Obama himself. Mr. Toobin writes that President Obama’s staffers “either never noticed the PDF, lost it, ignored it, or forgot about it.” As a result, when the time to administer the oath arrived, neither President Obama nor Chief Justice Roberts were on the same page and the oath was noticeably botched on national television.

A day later, the President’s legal advisors suggested that, “out of an abundance of caution,” the oath be administered again. The redo took place in the White House Map Room and proceeded smoothly. It is on this image, with President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts standing in front of the Map Room fireplace, that Mr. Toobin pauses to compare the two men. While they shared a common background — Harvard Law School and Law Review — and possess similar characteristics — “powerful intellect and considerable charm” — their respective life experiences led each of them to different beliefs about the Constitution and the Supreme Court.  And these differences are surprising to those of us who think of Chief Justice Roberts as a conservative, and President Obama as an agent of change.

Mr. Toobin writes: “[I]n this crucial realm, the roles of the two men were the opposite of what was widely believed. It was John Roberts who was determined to use his position as chief justice as an apostle of change. He was the one who wanted to usher in a new understanding of the Constitution, with dramatic implications for both the law and the larger society. And it was Barack Obama who was determined to hold on to an older version of the meaning of the Constitution.”

“The Oath” proceeds to focus on the evolution of the Roberts Court beginning with Chief Justice Roberts’ first term when his talent for negotiation and compromise brought the percentage of unanimous decisions up from one-third to an astonishing 45 percent. Unfortunately, this “era of good feeling” was short lived. The rest of the book tells the story of the three major constitutional issues addressed by the Roberts Court: gun control, campaign finance, and the Affordable Care Act.

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