Washington (CNN) Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote against President Donald Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, but only after changing his position behind the scenes, sources familiar with the private Supreme Court deliberations tell CNN.
The case was fraught with political consequences. Democrats and civil rights advocates claimed the query would discourage responses to the decennial questionnaire from new immigrants and minorities and affect the balance of power nationwide.
Roberts’ action recalled his dramatic switch in the 2012 case that saved President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Once again, the chief, an appointee of President George W. Bush and a reliable conservative, had sided with the liberals as a dispute of immense national significance went down to the wire.
More broadly, his moves in the census dispute demonstrate that as he begins his 15th year as chief justice, Roberts has become less predictable. He is wearing the heavy mantle of a vote at the middle of a divided bench in this new chapter of his tenure, with the 2018 retirement of centrist-conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and a solid 5-4 conservative majority.
For the most part, Roberts’ opinion in the census case laid out why Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had significant latitude to add a new question. He was joined by his four conservative brethren on that point. But then the chief justice swerved, and joined by the four liberal justices, said Ross’ justification for the citizenship question, tied to enforcing the Voting Rights Act, was contrived.
After the justices heard arguments in late April, Roberts was ready to rule for Ross and the administration. But sometime in the weeks that followed, sources said, Roberts began to waver. He began to believe that Ross’ rationale for the citizenship question had been invented, and that, despite the deference he would normally give an executive branch official, Ross’ claim had to matter in the court’s final judgment, which Roberts announced on June 27. READ MORE…