Every once in a while, you get a chance to say something nice about John Roberts, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s rare. The man never met a large corporation that he didn’t see as a friendly person, someone he was eager to reward with his latest anti-labor ruling, or to shower with the ability to spend unlimited cash buying the election of American politicians. But, hey, for reasons known only to him, he shocked the world by saving Obamacare…so there’s that. And then there’s this: The man gives a surprisingly good commencement speech.
Earlier this month, in fact, Roberts spoke at graduation for a small boarding school in New Hampshire attended by his son. It was so good that it went viral — especially this passage:
Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.
Whoa, good stuff. But here’s the thing: As one of the dozen or so most powerful men in America, Chief Justice Roberts is perfectly situated to mete out either pain or compassion, to listen to the pleas of lowly citizens or ignore them, and most importantly, to decide the value of justice versus unfair treatment. And when powerful elites from the world of politics and business are involved, he is the one who imposes these tests of hardship on the American people, He did so as the deciding vote in the infamous Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates of corporate and billionaire money into our already leaky political system. And perhaps worse, John Roberts wrote the opinion that made it next to impossible to convict our politicians who sell out their office to their rich pals and donors.
And it’s almost certain we’ll feel the pain here in corrupt and contented Philadelphia.
This started with the case of Bob McDonnell, the disgraced but now legally redeemed ex-governor of Virginia. It was revealed that during McDonnell’s tenure, around the start of the decade, he and his family spent a ton of time ignoring the people’s business to instead pal around with their brand-new, multi-millionaire friend. This businessman, who sold dietary supplements, gave the Virginia governor and his wife and family members a whopping $150,000 or more in gifts — fancy trips and luxury goods like an engraved Rolex watch — and loans. It’s true that McDonnell had no state contracts for dietary supplements to dole out to his friend. But he used his high office to help out any way that he could — introducing the businessman to state officials and business leaders, hosting a party at the governor’s mansion, etc.
A jury of McDonnell’s peers reached the same conclusion that you or I or most sensible people might reach: That a governor accepting gifts and doling out favors and offering privileged access was a crime, and he and his wife were convicted in 2014 on federal corruption charges. Which were thrown out unanimously by our Supreme Court, with the chief justice writing the decision. Roberts’ argument was that the definition of “official action” used by prosecutors and accepted by the judge and jury was too broad, and without a blatant quid pro quo — an elected official very specifically pressing an underling to undertake an official act — there was no bribery committed. What John Roberts did was declare open season for politicians to accept gifts and give back ridiculous amounts of access to wealthy benefactors and to use their power and influence to help them in myriad ways, as long as the new narrow definition wasn’t met. And now past pols who’d been caught with their hand in the cookie jar were scurrying to hire appeals lawyers.
Last week, the conviction of the formerly most powerful legislator in New York State — ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — was thrown out by a three-judge panel citing last year’s ruling by Roberts and the rest of the Supremes. The level of corruption involving Silver was shocking; through his law firm, he essentially received a whopping $4 million in kickbacks from mesothelioma doctors and real estate developers. Yet the judges said they had no choice but to toss Silver’s felony conviction, They laid it all at the feet of the Roberts court.
Here’s where Philadelphia comes into play. Remember last year’s felony corruption conviction of ex-U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. A key part of the case against the West Philadelphia born-and-raised former congressman is strikingly similar to the McDonnell case: Taking gifts like luxury cars and money from a politically wired millionaire seeking favors such as an ambassadorship. So it won’t surprise you to learn that the Supreme Court ruling in the Bob McDonnell case is at the core of Fattah’s appeal — nor should you be shocked if he ultimately gets off. And what about the other Philadelphia pols — City Council members, union bosses, etc., etc. — under a cloud of corruption? Will prosecutors even bother to file charges in these cases, knowing how hard our judiciary has made it to make felonies stick against the very powerful?
And yet pundits — over these past two politically fraught years that have seen millions of voters flock toward populism, nationalism, democratic socialism, and any other -ism that in some way sticks it to “the man” — continue to wonder why the American voter is so angry. This is why they’re so angry — the growing sense that not only are our leaders corrupt but that elites, including folks like John Roberts, have made it impossible to hold any of them accountable. Especially when you see a Supreme Court divided between conservatives and liberals voting en masse to protect their own: Corrupt pols from both major political parties. And with Roberts vote-alike Neil Gorsuch now on the bench and with more Gorsuches waiting in the wings, things won’t get any better for the next few decades.
So, yeah, it was cute when commencement speaker Roberts praised life’s hardships as some kind of character test. Just remember: Roberts is the one who’s making life hard in the first place.