Chief Justice John Roberts at the State of the Union in February. Photo: Leah Millis/Pool/Getty Images

After Chief Justice John Roberts stunned conservatives by voting against them on a big case for the third time in 12 days, advocates on both sides agreed on one thing: Roberts is playing a long game.

The state of play: Roberts, 65, nominated by President George W. Bush, is acutely conscious of both his personal legacy and the reputation of the institution. So court-watchers in both parties see a wily pragmatism in his surprise votes.

  • Roberts yesterday joined with the court's liberal bloc in striking down a Louisiana limit on abortion, as he had in the past two weeks on rulings protecting LGBTQ workers and giving a reprieve to Dreamers.
  • "I think Roberts believes he is where much of the country see themselves — conservative about their money and tolerant on social issues," said Hilary Rosen, a Democratic consultant and co-founder of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund.
  • "The question is whether this year of blatant inequality has changed that balance," she added.

Between the lines: The conservative court is still likely to roll back abortion rights, but the case the court decided yesterday was a bad vehicle to do it.

  • The restrictions the justices struck down were almost identical to restrictions they voided in 2016. Roberts voted to uphold the restrictions in 2016, but he lost. This time, he said, the earlier precedent simply tied his hands. That's hardly judicial activism. States that pass somewhat different abortion limits will still find a conservative majority inclined to support them.
  • In the meantime, Roberts has had little trouble using his capital to advance the conservative cause on business, tax and regulatory issues, as well as important voting rights cases.
Subscribe to Axios AM/PM for a daily rundown of what's new and why it matters, directly from Mike Allen.
Please enter a valid email.
Please enter a valid email.
Server error. Please try a different email.
Subscribed! Look for Axios AM and PM in your inbox tomorrow or read the latest Axios AM now.

Go deeper

How the Supreme Court could decide the election

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Supreme Court isn't just one of the most pressing issues in the presidential race — the justices may also have to decide parts of the election itself.

Why it matters: Important election-related lawsuits are already making their way to the court. And close results in swing states, with disputes over absentee ballots, set up the potential for another Bush v. Gore scenario, election experts say.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 28, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The Supreme Court's coming rightward shift on climate

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amy Coney Barrett's likely ascension to the Supreme Court would affect climate policy beyond shoving the court rightward in the abstract.

Why it matters: If Joe Biden wins the presidential election, his regulations and potential new climate laws would face litigation that could reach the high court.

Pennsylvania GOP asks Supreme Court to halt mail-in ballot extension

Applications for mail-in ballots in Reading, Pennsylvania. Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Republicans in Pennsylvania on Monday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt a major state court ruling that extended the deadlines for mail-in ballots to several days after the election, The Morning Call reports.

Why it matters: It's the first election-related test for the Supreme Court since the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and could decide the fate of thousands of ballots in a crucial swing state that President Trump won in 2016. What the court decides could signal how it would deal with similar election-related litigation in other states.