October 6, 2022

Justice Roberts issues rare solo dissent, accuses fellow justices of turning into ‘advice columnists’

First Amendment rights are under attack in the country. Why is one so-called conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice not interested in setting an important precedent?

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts just issued a shocking dissent on a case involving religious liberty, National Public Radio reported. This is the first solo dissenting opinion he’s issued in his nearly 16 years on the bench.

“The Court sees no problem with turning judges into advice columnists,” Roberts wrote in his official opinion. He broke with his colleagues in the 8-1 decision Thursday.

The case arose from a lower court’s dismissal of a religious liberty issue involving two Georgia Gwinnett College students who were repeatedly banned from handing out religiously-themed literature and making religious speeches on campus. The students sued the college for legal and court fees, but sought only a nominal $1 in damages.

The school acquiesced to their demands, changed their policies and paid the students’ fees. The dispute had effectively been settled, but the students still wished to persist with their lawsuit to set a legal precedent. A lower court dismissed the case calling it “moot,” and so it ended up at the high court.

The crux of the matter is whether the court needs to hear the case as a matter of principle. Even if the damages were small, it’s important the students have their day in court. That was the rationale for the majority opinion with which Roberts disagreed. “Nominal damages are not a consolation prize,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority opinion. “Despite being small, nominal damages are certainly concrete. … a person who is awarded nominal damages receives ‘relief on the merits of his claim.’ ”

Roberts thought this was a “radical expansion” of its jurisdiction and considered the dismissal from the lower court appropriate given the matter was already cleared. “Today’s decision risks a major expansion of the judicial role,” Roberts wrote. “Until now, we have said that federal courts can review the legality of policies and actions only as a necessary incident to resolving real disputes. Going forward, the Judiciary will be required to perform this function whenever a plaintiff asks for a dollar.”

Whether or not Roberts is correct about the particulars, it’s important for the high court to continue to hear a religious liberty case like this. If only Roberts had been this much of a stickler, America wouldn’t be saddled with Obamacare.

It’s not that he’s dissenting, or even that he’s going it alone. Rather, it’s that a George W. Bush appointee has not gone out of his way to dissent until he came across this matter — and that is telling.


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