Chief Justice Roberts Really Doesn’t Want Congress Telling The Court How To Decide Cases

January 14th, 2016

During oral arguments in Markazi v. Peterson, the Chief Justice got about as worked up as I’ve ever seen at the prospect that Congress tried to legislate an outcome in pending litigation concerning frozen Iranian assets. The statute instructed the lower courts that these funds can be used to compensate families of victims of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon.

The Chief and Ted Olson engaged in a five-page colloquy from p. 30 through 35, without any interruptions. I can’t recall the Chief ever pressing an advocate so hard and for so long. Here are several of his questions during this stretch:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: What if, Mr. Olson, Congress passed a law that said, you know, there are a lot of challenges to the statutory interpretation under a particular statute, say the Health Care Act, and it  said in any case involving a challenge to the statutory   interpretation of the Secretary of HHS of that act, once it finds jurisdiction, the Court will enter judgment agreeing with the Secretary’s purpose.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well ­­ well, but ­ I mean, this Court has a lot of decisions about how to  interpret statutes. And what Congress is saying in my  hypothetical is, well, that’s good for you; we want you  to adopt the Secretary’s interpretation in every case

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: I think that’s a  little surprising. In other words, Congress can pass a statute and then say whenever the statutory interpretation of the executive branch is challenged,  you, Court, will enter judgment in favor of the Secretary.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Let’s make it even clearer: The ­­ the ­­ the Court has issued its decision saying it agrees with the Plaintiff’s interpretation, but the mandate hasn’t issued yet, and Congress says, boy, we don’t like that decision. They pass a law saying in that case, this is the interpretation you should adopt.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: And just so you understand what I’m concerned about. You know, there are places in the world where courts function just the way our courts do, except every now and then, when there’s a case that the ­­ the strong man who runs the country is interested in because a crony is one of the parties or whatever, and he picks up the phone and he tells the court, You decide this case this way. And I don’t care what you thought the law was, decide it this way.

Roberts proceeded to–in Tony Mauro’s words–“lecture” Edwin Kneedler about the separation of powers.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: It becomes a problem ­­ with respect, it becomes a problem because our job is to decide cases. And before a lawsuit is filed, there’s no case. But when there is a case, Article III says that’s our job. Their job is to pass laws; our job is to decide a case. When there’s a dispute under one of the laws they pass, that’s our job.

Roberts was, by far, the most active Justice. Here is his record in the Index:

ROBERTS 3:3 16:5 26:3 27:2 27:6 29:12,15 29:24 30:15,24 31:9,22 32:3,7 32:16,20 33:9 34:1,12 35:10 35:14 39:4,18 41:1,17 42:7 44:15 49:14,21 50:3 54:21 61:1

Compare that with the usually-most-loquacious Justice, Scalia:

Scalia 7:3 9:2,7 9:13,18 14:11 14:21,24 15:1 15:10,16,23 27:22 28:11 35:7 43:7,14 43:22 44:1,4 57:22 58:3,8 58:11,14,16,20 58:24

I am going to go out on a limb here and predict the Chief assigns this opinion to himself.

If only the Affordable Care Act mandated that the Justices buy insurance–Roberts would’ve invalidated that law without hesitation.