The soft-spoken Roberts, wearing a dark suit and bold red tie, not only skirted questions about his controversial and historic ruling, but he issued a series of quips about everything from his predecessors to rules he would like to change, such as this one: “The odd historical quirk that the chief justice only gets one vote.”
Though he joked about visiting Malta, the 57-year-old Republican appointee might as well have been at one on Friday. The judicial conference was held at the secluded Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pa., a four-hour drive from Washington. And it was clear he was among friends – he once served on the circuit’s appeals court and is the justice assigned to hear requests for stays and some other matters that emerge from the circuit’s courts. He was also a long-time member of the Washington legal establishment, which comprised a majority of the conference’s participants.
Earlier on Thursday, shortly after the opinion became public, conservative lawyers and judges could be spotted moping about the resort, questioning how one of their most reliable votes on the court could write the 5-4 opinion upholding a statute that had been savaged by Republican politicians.
But within a few hours, those same conservatives treated Roberts with deference when he was whisked into the resort’s large room to attend the conference’s formal dinner. Conservative friends shook his hand and patted him on the back. Fred Fielding, a former White House counsel in Republican administrations, put his arm around the chief justice and whispered into his ear for a few minutes.
When Roberts was introduced at the dinner’s conclusion, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Liberals in the audience said they applauded fiercely to thank Roberts for saving the health care law. Conservative lawyers clapped, they said, because they respected the way he reached his opinion, even if they didn’t like the outcome.
“When I first saw that it was a 5-4 decision and the chief justice was the deciding vote, I wondered, ‘How did this happen?’” said John O’Quinn, a Justice Department lawyer during the Bush Administration and now a partner in the firm of Kirkland & Ellis. “Then I read the opinion and the reasoning behind it and realized it was filled with thoughtful reasoning… People can respect the man whether they agree with the opinion or not. That is enough reason to give an ovation.”