Health Care Decision Highlights Two Visions of Judicial Restraint, Two Eras of the Conservative Legal Movement

• July 10, 2012 • 10:31 am

I published an article today at The Public Discourse arguing that NFIB v. Sebelius highlights “two visions of judicial restraint, and two eras of the conservative legal movement.” I’ve excerpted a portion below, and you can find the full article here.

At the sprightly age of 57 and less than seven years into his term as chief justice, John Roberts looks like a man whom time has left behind. The reaction among legal conservatives to the Roberts opinion in National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (the healthcare case) has been brutal. Many have accused the chief justice of exchanging the black robes of the jurist for the trappings of the politician. The chief justice is said to have “blinked” and “failed [his] most basic responsibility.” Noted originalist scholar Mike Rappaport strongly implied that Roberts is “both a knave and a fool.” The cataloguing could go on.

As much as these reactions reveal about differing views on a hotly contested question of constitutional law, they are at least as interesting because of what they say about the state of the conservative legal movement. Today’s legal conservatives view the chief justice’s opinion as judicial abdication, but it was not too long ago that the philosophy reflected in Roberts’ opinion would have been conservative orthodoxy. The truth is that the conservative legal movement’s conception of judicial restraint has changed, departing from the view it held when it emerged from the constitutional wilderness to which it had been banished during the Warren Court. NFIB v. Sebelius displays a conservative legal movement in transition—and one that is increasingly leaving the judicial restraint in Roberts’ opinion behind.


  • Alan says:

    In other words the ‘conservative legal movement’ is leaving conservative judicial theories behind to justify political ends – this says more about that movement than it does the Chief Justice.