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John Roberts' Troubled Psyche

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Chief Justice John Roberts complained yesterday that the President's conduct during last month's State of the Union address, during which he criticized the Citizens United ruling, was "deeply troubling." At the risk of reading too much into Justice Roberts' hand-wringing, I'd like to suggest that it was a highly revealing indication of his personality.

In our book on authoritarianism, Marc Hetherington and I focus mainly on degrees of authoritarianism at the level of public opinion. We do, of course, talk about political elites and note that certain ones among their number, like Barack Obama and Rudolph Giuliani, exemplify some of the personality dimensions that we associate with non-authoritarianism and authoritarianism, respectively. But we don't know, of course, how public figures would "score" on the four-question child-rearing battery that we use to determine an individual's level of authoritarianism. This is why it's safer for us to talk about the cognitive styles and worldviews to whom elites appeal, rather than to assert whether they themselves fit one type or another. After all, one must always keep in mind that public figures are in some fundamental sense performers and as much as we like to delude ourselves that we can really "know" them from afar, this is an illusion. Is Mitt Romney a moderate Republican, or an aggressively conservative one? I don't know. I do know that he has played both roles in his political career and that he will say just about anything to get himself elected (and, of course, he's not alone), regardless of whatever his "real" views might be.

Sometimes, however, high-profile public figures, perhaps when they least intend to, do reveal something meaningful about themselves. And the spectacle of John Roberts' concern over the fact that he had to sit "expressionless" while President Obama criticized the Citizens' United ruling during last month's state of the union address (and was "literally surround[ed]" by presumably menacing members of Congress) is one of those moments.

Concerning the particulars of Roberts' apparently jangled nerves on the night in question, Glenn Greenwald writes:

It's not actually a unique event of oppression or suffering to have to sit and listen to a speech where someone criticizes you and you can't respond that very moment (but are able, as Roberts just proved, to respond freely afterward). Even in the State of the Union Address, it's completely customary for the President to criticize the Congress or the opposition party right to their faces, while members of his party stand and cheer vocally, and -- as the reaction to Joe Wilson's outburst demonstrated -- "decorum" dictates that the targets of the criticism sit silently and not respond until later, once the speech is done. That's how speeches work. Only Supreme Court Justices would depict their being subjected to such a mundane process as an act of grave unfairness (and, of course, Roberts' comrade, Sam Alito, could not even bring himself to abide by that decorum).

As Greenwald points out, Roberts' whining is especially striking given that:

Federal judges are basically absolute tyrants who rule over their courtroom and those in it with virtually no restraints. They can and do scold, criticize, berate, mock, humiliate and threaten anyone who appears before their little fiefdoms -- parties, defendants, lawyers, witnesses, audience members -- and not merely "decorum," but the force of law (in the form of contempt citations or other penalties), compels the target to sit silently and not respond. In fact, lawyers can be, and have been, punished just for publicly criticizing a judge.

Roberts is not atypically belligerent or obnoxious compared to other judges -- he's just typical in expecting a particular level of deference to his authority (and that level of deference is surely greater on the Supreme Court than anywhere else). But given how routinely he doles out harsh, probing criticism of people who appear before him and given his formidable professional stature, it's bracing to see how easily rattled he appears to be and how easily disrupted is his sense of personal security.

And his reaction hints of a deeply ingrained authoritarianism of the kind that scholars have been studying for decades -- a desperate need for structure and manners and for a clear and unshakable delineation of roles, an insistence on a strict, unwavering application of rules, irrespective of context and an incapacity to imagine what it might be like to be on one side of a set of circumstances that, when you are typically on the other side, you consider to be the definitively correct order of the universe. And on top of that, a strikingly easily shaken notion of personal security and well-being that, in turn, demands order of the most stringent kind to combat the terrifying disorder and unruliness of the world in which we live.

It's not only this episode, however, that hints at the extreme degree to which Roberts fits the authoritarian personality framework. In our book, we argue that a hallmark of authoritarianism is a cognitive profile characterized by a rejection of nuance and ambiguity and a need for clear-cut, black and white thinking. Roberts is a highly intelligent man, which is one reason why it's a mistake to reduce discussions of authoritarian personality to assertions about the stupidity of those who evince those personality traits. Roberts' reasoning is strikingly redolent of the authoritarian cognitive style, as was evident during the Seattle affirmative action case, decided in June of 2007, when the high court sharply limited the scope of public school integration plans.

In his profile of Roberts for the New Yorker last year, Jeffrey Toobin tells part of the tale:

Race was also at the center of the most important opinion so far in his career as Chief Justice -- a case that also displayed his pugnacious style in oral argument. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 concerned a challenge to the city's racial-integration plan. The Seattle plan assigned students to schools based on a variety of factors, including how close the student lived to the school and whether siblings already attended, but the goal of maintaining racial diversity was considered as well. At the oral argument, on December 4, 2006, the Chief Justice tore into Michael F. Madden, the lawyer for the Seattle school district.

"You don't defend the choice policy on the basis that the schools offer education to everyone of the same quality, do you?" he asked, and Madden said that he did defend it on those grounds.

"How is that different from the 'separate but equal' argument?" Roberts went on. "In other words, it doesn't matter that they're being assigned on the basis of their race because they're getting the same type of education."

Toobin also recounts the most famous line Roberts has written as Chief Justice so far, in his majority opinion in the Seattle case:

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Toobin notes that this drew an "incredulous dissent" from Justice John Paul Stevens:

"who said that the Chief Justice's words reminded him of "Anatole France's observation" that the "majestic equality" of the law forbade "rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread." For dozens of years, the Court had drawn a clear distinction between laws that kept black students out of white schools (which were forbidden) and laws that directed black and white students to study together (which were allowed); Roberts's decision sought to eliminate that distinction and, more generally, called into question whether any race-conscious actions by government were still constitutional. "It is my firm conviction that no Member of the Court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today's decision," Stevens concluded.

France, of course, meant for his "observation" to be satirical. Roberts' reasoning here suggests he would not have gotten the joke. Of course, many opponents of affirmative action view Roberts' logic here as impeccable. But it's hard to believe that, even if you consider affirmative action as unfair on the grounds that it punishes people today for transgressions of which they played no part, or that the historical injustices that originally necessitated affirmative action no longer obtain, that you could actually believe that stopping the kind of "discrimination" that Roberts sees in the Seattle plan, would actually stop the kinds of racism that has historically hurt African Americans (or other minorities).

Roberts is not above play-acting. Toobin's profile got a lot of attention last year for arguing that, contrary to Roberts' demure, moderate-seeming and "neutral" tone during his confirmation hearings in 2005, he has turned into a far-right ideologue. And, in fact, Roberts' likely pursuit of an aggressively right-wing judicial activist agenda was plain to see before he ever took his seat on the high court, even for a rank amateur court watcher.

But Roberts' apparently deep sense of injury over being criticized, the evident insecurity he feels notwithstanding his awesome power and the frankly stunningly simplistic nature of his reasoning (at least when it comes to race and affirmative action) are likely not play-acting. They provide a revealing and, I would dare say, troubling window onto the soul of the man who may head our high court for the next generation.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com.