John Roberts, Liberal Icon

The Chief Justice has a whole new set of friends: the left.

John Roberts “Hope” poster by Slate’s Dave Weigel.

Chief Justice John Roberts was the key factor in upholding the Affordable Care Act today, voting with liberal justices to uphold the law 5-4 — a fact that has enraged conservatives and endeared him to liberals who had long railed against a perceived activist Roberts court.

“Today I think we saw the original purpose of the founding fathers, to have the court interpret and not make laws,” said Andy Stern, the former president of the powerful Service Employees International Union who’s now a professor at Columbia. “I think it does smooth off some of the rough edges of the Roberts court.”

“It will clearly benefit the Chief Justice if he continues to isolate some of the more roguish members of the court like Justice Scalia,” Stern said, by “restoring people’s sense” of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

“I think Justice Roberts is a young man by Supreme Court standards and he’s going to live with the legacy of the court for a long time,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. “I think he looked at the four justices willing to overturn this law, and saw that it would be an incredible power grab by the court.”

Tanden said she doesn’t believe Roberts was motivated by politics, but perhaps by his peers in the world of law.

“I think what this does is he will rise in the esteem of legal scholars—the weight of opinion from the legal community, from Supreme Court experts for the last two years has been that overturning mandate would be an incredible overreach,” Tanden said.

Jonathan Chait of New York magazine went farther: “John Roberts Saves Us All,” he titled his piece.

“Roberts peered into the abyss of a world in which he and his colleagues are little more than Senators with lifetime appointments, and he recoiled,” Chait wrote. “The long-term war over the shape of the state goes on, but the crisis of legitimacy has been averted. I have rarely felt so relieved.”

Roberts’ decision did have a strong conservative element—in ruling that the mandate was an allowable tax, he noted that he did not believe the Obama administration’s argument that the Commerce Clause itself was sufficient to impose the mandate, thus opening the door to future rulings against the federal government’s control of interstate commerce.

That piece of the story has been lost on conservative activists, many of whom have turned on Roberts.

Roberts is “a disappointment,” said conservative radio host Bryan Fischer, who plans to devote his entire show to the ACA today. “He is gong to go down in history as the justice that shredded the Constitution and turned it into a worthless piece of parchment.”

Liberals have “got to be loving him right now,” Fischer said.

Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots also said she was “disappointed” in Roberts.

“Historians are going to look back on today and equate it with Plessy vs. Ferguson and Dred Scott,” Martin said. “I think that right now today people feel betrayed by the majority of the court.”

What’s clear to all commenters is that their fundamental assumptions about the current Supreme Court need revising.

“I think that conservatives have been waiting for Justice Kennedy to leave the bench as the final victory lap in the Supreme Court, so that the conservative philosophy would be unstoppable,” Stern said. “I think clearly in this case, conservatives are going to have to rethink.”

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