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How Will Chief Justice And Supreme Court Conservative Majority Affect 2020 Election?

Chief Justice John Roberts
J. Scott Applewhite
Chief Justice John Roberts

The U.S. Supreme Court is no stranger to controversy, but it still gets higher marks in public opinion polls than the other branches of government. Now though, for the first time in memory, the court is not just split along ideological lines, but along political lines as well: All the conservatives are Republican appointees, all the liberals Democratic appointees. That division could put the court in the crosshairs of public opinion if it is forced to make decisions that affect the 2020 election.

Chief Justice John Roberts has worked hard to persuade the public that the justices are fair-minded legal umpires — not politicians in robes. That image got pretty scuffed up earlier this month when the conservative court majority shot down accommodations for the coronavirus that would have allowed six more days for absentee ballots to be received in Wisconsin's election for 500 school board seats, over 100 judicial seats and thousands of other state and local positions.

In the weeks leading up to the election, the COVID-19 pandemic had become a public health crisis. Encouraged by local officials, about a million more voters than usual requested absentee ballots, and local officials were unable to keep up with the surge. To mitigate that problem, the lower courts allowed an extra six days for election officials to receive completed absentee ballots.

But the day before the election, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling by a 5-to-4 vote. The result was that tens of thousands of people who had not yet even received their absentee ballots were forced to, as the dissenters put it, choose between their health and their right to vote.

The TV footage of people wearing masks waiting for hours to vote at the very few precincts that were open amid the pandemic was, to say the least, not a good look. Health officials in Milwaukee have since identified six voters and one poll worker who appear to have contracted the virus during the election.

The majority opinion was unsigned, so no one knows who the principal author was. But we do know some things.

First, the emergency appeal in the case came through the justice assigned to that region of the country, Brett Kavanaugh. Typically, when a justice refers a case to the full court, he or she writes a memo about the issues, likely with a recommendation. Kavanaugh almost certainly did that. But other justices would then chime in. And in a voting case, Chief Justice Roberts assuredly would have played a pivotal role.

"John Roberts' fingerprints are on this as chief justice and as someone who has owned this area of the law," says Joan Biskupic, a Supreme Court biographer and CNN legal analyst who is the author of a critically acclaimed biography about Roberts.

Indeed, Roberts was invested in voting-rights law as far back as 1982 when he was a staffer in the Reagan administration. Back then, he led the effort to narrow the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. When that failed, President Reagan signed the broad extension of the law, rejecting advice to veto it. But years later, on the Supreme Court, Roberts wrote the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, gutting a key provision of that law.

So, it was no surprise when the conservative majority refused to make even a modest accommodation to the pandemic. What was surprising was the tone of the opinion. Critics of the opinion, including some Roberts defenders, called the language "callous," "cynical" and "unfortunate."

In fact, the word "pandemic" appears not once in the court's unsigned opinion. Rather, the majority sought to portray the issue before the court as a "narrow, technical question." The majority said the lower court had overstepped the Supreme Court's established rule that courts should "ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election."

The dissenters replied that the court's treatment of the current situation as ordinary "boggles the mind." Writing for the dissenters, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opined that "a voter cannot deliver...a ballot she has not yet received. Yet tens of thousands of voters who timely requested absentee ballots" are being asked to do just that.

"I do think there's something to this idea that we need to stick with the rules even in the context of an emergency," says law professor Rick Hasen, an election expert at the University of California, Irvine.

He and others see the legal question before the court as a close call, but say the decision was, at the very least, tone deaf in light of the reality of a pandemic.

Hasen says that the court could have recognized "the inhumanity of making people vote in this way," but that instead the tone of the opinion was "really dismissive of the entire threat facing these voters."

Chief Justice Roberts has, on some occasions tried to bridge the two wings of the court, in a couple of big cases siding with the court's liberals, or sometimes trying to fashion a compromise. But as Hasen observes, "there really is not any case I can think of involving elections where Roberts has forged a larger consensus."

Roberts must have anticipated at least some of the outcry over the Wisconsin decision. He is, after all, an astute political observer.

But as any student of the court knows, Roberts is a reliable, and often leading member of the conservative majority when it comes to a whole host of issues involving campaigns, voting and elections. That includes decisions he has written striking down laws aimed at limiting the role of big money in campaigns and decisions upholding partisan gerrymanders. Moreover, voting rights in particular "is an area of the law where John Roberts has not been deterred by anticipated public criticism," says Biskupic, his biographer.

For the chief, says Biskupic, "It's not just voting rights. It's a broader overlay of representation" in his decisions, a pattern that "often will favor Republicans, but more fundamentally, it seems to favor entrenched powers, the status quo in many states, against ordinary citizens. And we certainly saw that in Wisconsin."

Uncertainties around COVID-19 remain, with states facing decisions about when to reopen and what size of public gatherings are safe. As November inches closer, those decisions could affect the 2020 election. Who gets to vote, when, and how, are unanswered questions and states are surely exploring different plans to keep voters safe. But Roberts' Supreme Court may be the ultimate arbiter of what changes and accommodations to voting are allowed.

The majority opinion "tried to tell the public that this was a very small decision," says Biskupic. "But as the dissent pointed out, it laid down a very serious marker about how voters will be accommodated in the middle of the coronavirus crisis."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.