supreme court

Pence Goes After John Roberts As ‘Disappointment to Conservatives’

The latest judicial Judas in the eyes of the Christian right, and his vice-presidential critic. Photo: Mark Wilson/Peter Summers/Getty Images

The most recent Supreme Court term produced some decisions that appalled religious conservatives. This has confronted Donald Trump and his team with a challenge closely related to his energize-the-base strategy for reelection. On the one hand, the counterrevolutionary transformation of the Court Trump promised to opponents of legalized abortion and LGBTQ rights clearly hasn’t occurred, despite two Trump appointments, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. On the other hand, Trump can claim the consummation of that counterrevolution depends more than ever on Christian right voters marching to the polls in November to give him a second term.

This message is important enough to Team Trump that it was entrusted to the administration’s chief liaison with the religious right, Vice-President Mike Pence, to deliver via an interview with CBN political analyst David Brody, probably the most prominent Christian right journalist in the country and a worshipful ally of the 45th president. And Pence delivered by blaming recent Court decisions squarely on Chief Justice John Roberts.

Chief Justice John Roberts has been a disappointment to conservatives, whether it be the Obamacare decision or whether it be a spate of recent decisions all the way through Calvary Chapel [a challenge to state coronavirus restrictions on religious services]. It’s a reminder and I think several cases out of the Supreme Court are reminders of just how important this election is for the future of the Supreme Court. We remember the issue back in 2016, which I believe loomed large in voters’ decisions between Hillary Clinton and the man who would become president of the United States. And some people thought that it wouldn’t be as big an issue these days. But I think that’s all changed. The recent decision, and again, a narrow Supreme Court decision striking down a Louisiana pro-life law that only said that doctors working in abortion clinics would have to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. That’s a very modest restriction on abortion providers. But a narrow majority in the Supreme Court still said it was unacceptable. I think it’s been a wake-up call for pro-life voters around the country who understand, in a very real sense, the destiny of the Supreme Court is on the ballot in 2020. And that’s why President Trump announced that he’s going to publish another list of men and women from which he will draw any future appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States. He did that in 2016. He kept his word. He’s going to do that in the fall of 2020. And in the next four years, he’ll keep his word and appoint more principled conservatives to our courts.” 

Pence’s focus on Roberts and his key vote with Court liberals in a 5-4 decision in June Medical Services v. Russo, the Louisiana abortion case, allowed him to sidestep the even more inflammatory role of Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch in Bostock v. Clayton County, the landmark decision that LGBTQ employees are entirely covered by the anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That had to be a particularly bitter pill for Christian right Court-watchers to swallow, since Gorsuch had been perceived as a particularly strong supporter of the right of religious conservatives to practice discrimination in pursuance of their faith convictions. To be sure, Roberts supported Gorsuch’s heretical opinion in Bostock. But in any event, by violating the traditional taboo against executive branch officials criticizing members of SCOTUS by name, Pence made the chief justice the chief obstacle to the triumph of righteousness on the Court, making it especially critical that Trump secure another appointment or two (from a new, improved list of SCOTUS prospects that will probably include a fresh supplement of constitutional extremists).

The sensitivity of this issue to Trump and his Christian right allies was reflected in the question Brody asked that elicited Pence’s criticism of Roberts:

Are you scratching your head a little bit on John Roberts? I mean, we’re not going to call him David Souter at this point, but conservatives have had a track record of having some problems with Supreme Court justices who thought we’re going to be a reliable vote.

Brody is reminding Pence of the long history of perceived betrayal of conservatives by Republican presidents who put jurists on the Supreme Court who upheld reproductive rights and other liberal precedents. Exhibit A has always been David Souter, an obscure state judge that Poppy Bush put on the Court, where he happily joined the liberal majority for nearly two decades. As it happens, Bush tried to make up for the Souter mistake by making Clarence Thomas his next SCOTUS nominee. So Pence is implicitly promising Brody that Trump will be extra-careful in his next nomination to the Court to deliver someone who will reliably help turn the tide against rights for women, LGBTQ folk, immigrants, and other threats to conservative Christian patriarchy.

Pence Hits John Roberts As ‘Disappointment to Conservatives’