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In a lot of ways, Chief Justice Roberts is a more central figure than ever this term


The Supreme Court started a new term earlier this week with a history-making new justice on the bench, a docket already loaded with high-profile cases and the lingering effects of its decision last term to end nationwide access to abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade. With all of that has come renewed focus on the court and the role it plays in American life. But we want to start this hour with a focus on one key figure on the court, Chief Justice John Roberts. That's because in a lot of ways, the chief justice is a more central figure than ever this term. That's in part because of the court's dramatic shift to the right and its polarizing decisions. The chief justice has been called upon to defend the court's legitimacy more than ever.

But it's also because this term, a number of cases before the court focus on race and subjects where Chief Justice Roberts has himself shown a willingness to make polarizing decisions that overturn precedent in areas such as voting rights and affirmative action. Court watchers are looking to see how he navigates this moment. So to lay the groundwork, we called Joan Biskupic, who spent years covering the Supreme Court and profiled Roberts in her book "The Chief: The Life And Turbulent Times Of Chief Justice John Roberts." And she's with us now. Joan Biskupic, thanks so much for joining us.

JOAN BISKUPIC: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Let's turn to the subject of today, which is the chief. He was appointed to the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush. You know, for years, he was considered a solid part of the court's conservative bloc. But with the court's shift to the right in recent years, how has that changed his role?

BISKUPIC: It's - much more tension surrounds his role. He has five justices to his right. It takes five for a majority. They don't need him. Still, though, Michel, as chief justice, he has the power to assign opinions when he's in the majority. That is a bargaining chip of sorts. And he is still very much in the main of where this right wing is. You opened by talking about him in regard to race. And John Roberts has always been a unyielding conservative when it comes to racial remedies and limits on the Voting Rights Act and limits on racial affirmative action in higher education.

MARTIN: And there are a number of cases this term that speak to those issues. I mean, there's the Alabama redistricting case. The Harvard affirmative action case is being argued later this month. There's a case involving whether Native American families should be given priority to adopt Native American children. For people who don't watch the court full time, is there a reason there are this many cases before the court involving these issues? I mean, is that some sort of - deliberate in some way? Is that...

BISKUPIC: Yes, there's a little bit of a ideal that the court doesn't reach out for cases. It only takes what comes to its doorstep. But that's not quite true. The justices have authority over what they want to take and what they don't want to take. So race is a theme in part because these justices want to reexamine some of the premises that the court in the past has had about racial justice.

MARTIN: In your book, you write the following. You say, quote, "while in the Reagan administration, he had fervently argued that the 1965 Voting Rights Act should be narrowly interpreted, a view that followed from his opposition to measures that protected groups of people based on their race and ethnicity. He believed then and believes to this day that the focus should be on individuals who have been personally wronged." So obviously, all of these issues have a deep stem with people. But just based on your reporting, what do you think shapes this view?

BISKUPIC: You know, he grew up in a conservative home in Indiana. He's in the '60s and '70s That's when he's - a very impressionable time of his life. And the country is debating and Congress is enacting civil rights legislation. And he's seen all this churning around him, and when he hears Ronald Reagan approach some of these topics when he's running in 1980, John Roberts feels like Ronald Reagan's really speaking to him. And at one point, he says he felt the call, and he goes into the Reagan administration and he really, for the first time, begins documenting his views on race.

I think you captured him by what you read there. But I think what he believes is that, first of all, that the federal government shouldn't be interfering so much on these, that in terms of voting rights, it should be a state issue. And the other thing he has shown through the years that he's not quite sure that America needs to have these kinds of remedies anymore.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, Joan, this has been really helpful in trying to understand what we may be seeing this term. What would you say is Chief Justice John Roberts' north star at this moment?

BISKUPIC: I think he is at the center of so many of these conservative agenda items that go beyond reproductive rights, religion, race. He wants those things, but he wants to appear measured. This is an incredibly young court right now with four of the justices in their 50s, three of them the Trump appointees who are steering this court. The oldest justice is Clarence Thomas at 74, ending court term. That's still a pretty young justice. So John Roberts cannot hope for turnover. But what he has to hope he can do is to get someone like Brett Kavanaugh and possibly Amy Coney Barrett not to lunge so far to the right and try to keep some middle ground, all the while moving the court in the direction that he still really wants to move the court - rightward, but not so fast.

MARTIN: That is CNN Supreme Court analyst Joan Biskupic. Her book, "The Chief: The Life And Turbulent Times Of Chief Justice John Roberts," is out now. Joan Biskupic, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this reporting with us.

BISKUPIC: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.