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Can Liberals Trust John Roberts to Rescue Obamacare Again?

A pro-Hobby Lobby ruling would be his most radical decision

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Most Supreme Court watchers are fixated these days on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby—the important challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate scheduled for argument Tuesday. And why wouldn’t they be? With its potent mix of religion, sex, Obamacare, and prayerful corporations, it’s the blockbuster case of the term. It is also a crucial test of Chief Justice John Roberts’s leadership on the Supreme Court.

Just two years ago, Roberts cast the deciding vote to largely uphold the Affordable Care Act. While the country remains divided over whether he acted like a traitor or a statesman, all would have to agree that, given the level of public scrutiny on the Court and the case’s overall importance (both substantively and to the President’s legacy), Roberts’s ACA vote was the defining moment of his tenure thus far. In a bold move, he broke ranks with his conservative colleagues, joined with the Court’s progressive wing, and preserved the President’s signature achievement. In Hobby Lobby, Roberts meets the ACA yet again, and the stakes for his reputation—and that of his Court—couldn’t be higher. 

Chief Justice Roberts has often spoken about how important it is for the justices to maintain the legitimacy of the Court—by limiting divisive rulings, moving the law incrementally, and trying to stay above politics. For instance, in an interview with Jeffrey Rosen early in his tenure as chief justice, Roberts explained that the Court is “ripe for a ... refocus on functioning as an institution, because if it doesn’t it’s going to lose its credibility and legitimacy.” Expressing admiration for the great Chief Justice John Marshall, Roberts added that, even as a committed Federalist, Marshall preferred to move the law “in a way that ... wasn’t going to alienate people on the Court and turn the Court into another battleground.” While commentators certainly quibble over just how radical an effect John Roberts has had on the law—even Justice Antonin Scalia once attacked the chief justice’s approach in a pre-Citizens United campaign finance case as “faux judicial restraint”—there’s little question that Roberts himself prefers the image of the modest jurist to that of judge-as-hero (think Earl Warren) or judge-as-prophet (think Scalia). 

He cultivated this image most dramatically in the first ACA case, joining with his progressive colleagues to uphold a Democratic president’s most important achievement—and in the middle of an election year, no less. Furthermore, just last term, the Roberts Court managed to reach an unlikely compromise in a blockbuster affirmative action case, and Roberts himself preserved the marriage-equality status quo in California with his majority opinion in Hollingsworth v. Perry. However, even in areas where Roberts has pushed the law dramatically to the right (like voting rights), he has tended to prefer a slower-moving, more incremental approach than his more radical colleagues, with seismic shifts (like Shelby County v. Holder) coming only after the political ground has already been prepared with previous, more modest decisions (like NAMUDNO v. Holder)—legal warning shots, if you will. He has also chipped away at progressive laws in a series of low-profile cases—for instance, those on the Court’s business docket. This strategy allows him to move the law to the right, while also preserving the institutional legitimacy of the Court.

Through this lens, Hobby Lobby presents a potential dilemma for the savvy Chief Justice. In the case, Hobby Lobby, a craft-store chain owned by Southern Baptists, is suing the government to seek religious exemption from the ACA's requirement that it offer insurance plans to employees that cover contraception at no extra cost. On the one hand, Roberts is confronting the ACA for the first time since the conservative firestorm over his decision largely upholding the Act. There’s little doubt that he’ll be tempted to throw conservatives a bone, siding with Hobby Lobby and against the ACA. 

On the other hand, a vote in favor of Hobby Lobby requires the chief justice to do at least three things that threaten major disruptive consequences and present serious downstream risks for the Court as an institution. First, he must conclude that corporations have the same rights to religious freedom as living, breathing humans—something that the Supreme Court has never done. Second, he must unsettle centuries of well-established corporate law practice—a move at loggerheads with the Roberts Court’s (and John Roberts’s own) pro-corporate leanings. And, third, he must extend unprecedented protections to a secular employer, therefore opening the floodgates to new religious freedom challenges to countless other laws. In short, a vote for Hobby Lobby means endorsing a radical departure from well-settled precedent—perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in the realm of religious freedom. 

In the decades leading up to the Supreme Court’s 1990 landmark decision in Employment Division v. Smith, courts heard many free exercise challenges. For the most part, they followed a familiar pattern: A law applied to everyone in a given jurisdiction; someone came to court and claimed a religious objection to that law; and the court ultimately rejected that challenger’s claim. This was true in the Supreme Court and, as explained by Professor James Ryan, it was also true in the lower courts. The bottom line—whether you were an Amish employer refusing to pay Social Security taxes or an army doctor wishing to wear a yarmulke while on duty, you were probably going to lose your free exercise claim.

Then along came Smith—a free exercise decision that hit the legal and political world like a thunderbolt. The case involved Native Americans dismissed from their jobs for failing a drug test. (They had smoked peyote during a religious ceremony.) Because of this drug use—religiously motivated or not—Oregon then denied them unemployment benefits. When they challenged this action on free exercise grounds, the Court rejected their claim. However, rather than simply applying the Court’s traditional balancing test (where the Court weighed a given law’s burden on religion against the governmental interest advanced by the law), Justice Scalia struck a radical pose, shelving it for a bright-line rule that was even less protective of religious objectors—and hence the controversy.

Of course, under the pre-Smith test, religious objectors were already losing these cases. Following Smith, they were only slightly more likely to do so. Nevertheless, Congress responded to Scalia’s decision by enacting a new law explicitly overturning Smith and restoring the pre-Smith status quo, but all that really did was reestablish an environment where free exercise claims rarely succeeded.

Given this legal backdrop, the key question for Roberts leading up to the Hobby Lobby argument is whether he’ll stick with this traditional approach or adopt a new, more stringent test—one even stricter than anything that existed in the pre-Smith world. If the chief justice takes the more radical path—and, more importantly, if he convinces at least four of his colleagues to go along with him—Hobby Lobby could, indeed, live up to the hype and become a truly revolutionary case.

For instance, such a ruling would entangle lower courts and the Roberts Court itself in knotty free exercise challenges (and a lot of them)—challenges that would potentially require judges to define what counts as “religious belief,” assess the sincerity of those beliefs that pass muster, and apply the traditional balancing test with serious bite. Courts have balked at going down this path in the past—and for good reason. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has never granted a religious accommodation to a secular business that comes at the expense of its employees—an unprecedented move that would allow secular employers to effectively impose their own religious views on the employees, even in the face of contrary laws.

In the end, however tempted Chief Justice Roberts may be to strike a blow to Obamacare in this highly publicized, blockbuster case—and however much his conservative colleagues may be pulling him in that direction—Roberts can’t give in to these pressures without tarnishing his carefully cultivated image as a cautious jurist and, in the process, unleashing a wave of unpredictable (and risky) consequences.

Tom Donnelly is counsel at Constitutional Accountability Center. Prior to joining CAC, Tom served as a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School.