Chief Justice John Roberts may have angered conservatives with his decisive vote in favor of ObamaCare, but he was, in CBS anchor Scott Pelley’s words, the “man of the hour” on all three network evening newscasts Thursday night.
ABC’s Terry Moran complimented Roberts’ lurch to the left, saying it “did give heart to many Court watchers,” who were worried the Court “was at risk of becoming just another hyper-partisan place... By joining the liberals, Chief Justice Roberts seemed to have stopped that.”
CBS’s Wyatt Andrews also had warm words for Roberts: “Yesterday, he was widely seen as another partisan on the court. Today, in the most dramatic case of John Roberts’ career, he changes, he breaks the mold.” That’s when Pelley chimed in: “The man of the hour.”
On NBC, anchor Brian Williams approvingly cited support Roberts garnered from a staunchly liberal law professor: “Today, Lawrence Tribe, the Harvard professor, who can say he taught Barack Obama and John Roberts at Harvard Law School said that with this decision, crossing over to join the liberals, Roberts might have saved the institution.”
NBC legal correspondent Savannah Guthrie agreed: “He [Roberts] cares very much about the institution of the Court, the credibility of the Court, he has expressed a distaste for decisions that come down 5-to-4 against those predictable party lines.”
For good measure, NBC’s main report by Justice correspondent Pete Williams quoted the ubiquitous Supreme Court pundit Tom Goldstein, who instructed viewers on how they should approve of Roberts’ decision: “The fact that a conservative Republican-appointed Chief Justice wrote today’s opinion, joining with the court’s more liberal members would, and should, give Americans a lot of confidence in the decision, that it’s not just a political thing.”
Only CBS’s Andrews gave an on-camera interview to a conservative legal expert, Georgetown’s Randy Barnett, who uniquely suggested John Roberts was no hero: “If it turns out that Chief Justice Roberts did buckle under the intense political pressure that was brought to bear on him after this case was submitted, that will not be good for his legacy as a justice.”
All three broadcasts followed a similar pattern, focusing on the details of the Court decision, its effect on the campaign, plus the typical heart-rending stories about how ObamaCare, now safely certified by Roberts, will benefit regular people. ABC’s Diane Sawyer uniquely added a short history lesson celebrating how Obama’s health care bill is the culmination of a decades-long liberal quest:
DIANE SAWYER: And we keep talking about a historic day, for a little perspective on that it’s worth remembering that in a sense, this has been 77 years in the making. In 1935, it was Franklin Roosevelt who first tried for a national health care bill but fell short. He could only get Social Security. And then President Lyndon Johnson in ’65 gambled big and lost. He added Medicare, though, and then we remember First Lady Hillary Clinton who tried and failed, and today she said she was very pleased with the Supreme Court decision, calling it ‘a great moment.’
But by far, the most noteworthy element of Thursday’s newscasts was the sudden respect that network reporters showed for Chief Justice Roberts, who has previously been criticized as part of the Court’s conservative block. Thanks to news analyst Matt Hadro, who stayed late into the evening here at MRC’s headquarters, here are some of the key exchanges:
# ABC’s World News:
ABC’s TERRY MORAN (holding up the decision): This is it, the epic opinion. It came as a shock because, as you suggest, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Court’s liberals and saved the President’s health care plan by, essentially, rewriting it.... Few expected this result from the staunchly conservative Roberts, who was appointed by George W. Bush and who many Americans might best remember as they guy who bungled Barack Obama’s oath of office....
This opinion did give heart to many Court watchers who’ve been concerned that this institution of government was at risk of becoming just another hyper-partisan place in American politics. By joining the liberals, Chief Justice Roberts seemed to have stopped that.
# CBS Evening News
SCOTT PELLEY: Good evening. The entire country has been hearing about it, arguing about it, but fair to say no one saw this coming: the conservative Chief Justice of the United States today single-handedly saved the most important domestic achievement of a liberal President....
WYATT ANDREWS: Almost every conservative scholar in the country is now asking, ‘What happened to the Chief Justice?’...Georgetown Law Professor Randy Barnett was among the first to argue the insurance mandate was unconstitutional. He’s surprised, because the Chief Justice struck down the key administration arguments defending the Affordable Care Act, but then went out of his way to approve the law under Congress’ power to tax.
BARNETT: As to why he decided to uphold the act under the tax power, to rewrite the law as a tax and say that it was constitutional, that’s something that only he really knows.
ANDREWS: Until this morning, Chief Justice Roberts was a reliable conservative vote, especially on social issues that split the court 5-4: Roberts wrote the 5-4 opinion to end school integration based solely on race; he was part of the 5-4 majority that upheld the ban on late-term abortions; and the 5-4 majority allowing unlimited corporate spending in campaigns.
So what happened? Tom Goldstein, founder of SCOTUSblog, a respected Web site on the court, says Roberts followed the law but knew he was making history. Where does this fit in the Roberts legacy?
TOM GOLDSTEIN: This is item number one. This is his signature statement that ‘I’m not a partisan. I’m here to provide a limited backstop against excesses by the Congress. And I don’t see it here.’
ANDREWS: To conservatives, this was a signature statement, just not the right one. (to Professor Barnett) What’s the chance he didn’t want to be the Chief Justice to overturn this big a law?
BARNETT: If it turns out that Chief Justice Roberts did buckle under the intense political pressure that was brought to bear on him after this case was submitted, that will not be good for his legacy as a justice.
ANDREWS: But there’s already no question this one case changes the John Roberts legacy, Scott. Yesterday, he was widely seen as another partisan on the court. Today, in the most dramatic case of the John Roberts career, he changes, he breaks the mold.
PELLEY: The man of the hour. Wyatt, thank you very much.
# NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS (starting off the newscast): Perhaps mindful that it’s called ‘the Roberts Court,’ Chief Justice John Roberts gave the President the victory he wanted, though it was, of course, immediately enveloped in politics, with Republicans still vowing to kill it....
PETE WILLIAMS: The key to the decision turned out to be the Chief Justice, a lifelong conservative appointed to the court by President George W. Bush.
TOM GOLDSTEIN (SCOTUSblog): The fact that a conservative Republican-appointed Chief Justice wrote today’s opinion joining with the court’s more liberal members would and should give Americans a lot of confidence in the decision, that it’s not just a political thing....
BRIAN WILLIAMS: And Savannah, let’s talk about Chief Justice John Roberts. Today, Lawrence Tribe, the Harvard professor, who can say he taught Barack Obama and John Roberts at Harvard Law School said that with this decision, crossing over to join the liberals, Roberts might have saved the institution. He has to be hyper-aware that the Court these days is viewed as politically as anything else in Washington.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: This is something that Justice Roberts has talked about repeatedly. It’s something that almost consumes him. He cares very much about the institution of the Court, the credibility of the Court, he has expressed a distaste for decisions that come down five to four against those predictable party lines.
Well today we got a five to four decision alright, but it was not along those ideological lines. But look, he’s still a conservative jurist. There’s still plenty of conservative ideology shot through the opinion that he wrote today, and he really comes down hard on the government’s theory of this broad federal power. He puts some new limits on Congress’ spending power. He’s a conservative jurist, no question. But he’s thinking about not only his own legacy, but the legacy of the Court itself.
-- Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Click here  to follow him on Twitter.