To the Surprise of No One, Ted Cruz Trashes John Roberts

Ted Cruz, mid-debate.
Ted Cruz, mid-debate.

It wasn't exactly a shock that Sen. Ted Cruz was running for president. From the moment the always-controversial junior senator from Texas hit the U.S. Senate floor, he did everything to hint that he wanted to be president next short of waving an actual flag with "Cruz 2016" emblazoned on it.

What's been fascinating to watch has been Cruz's desperate twisting and contorting to become the just-right candidate to get the GOP nomination. He hasn't balked at being friendly and downright deferential to his new best buddy Donald Trump. At the same time, he didn't bat an eye when it came time to denounce his old buddy, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, during CNN's debate Wednesday night. 

It started when a CNN moderator asked Jeb Bush if his brother made a mistake in appointing Roberts. Bush chimed in that Roberts has made some good decisions but that as president he would only appoint triple-checked super-conservative justices to the court. Cruz, however, used the question as an opportunity vilify both H.W. and W. for appointing David Souter, a conservative who took a much more liberal approach than expected once he got on the court, and Roberts, who's been lambasted by hard-right conservatives for voting to uphold the Affordable Care Act (aka Conservative Kryptonite) not once but twice.

But then things got really interesting (albeit a little depressing) when Jeb Bush pointed out that Cruz himself was one of the strongest proponents of the Roberts nomination back in 2005.  "That was a mistake and I regret that," Cruz said. "I wouldn't have nominated John Roberts and indeed Gov. Bush pointed out why. It wasn't that President Bush wanted to appoint a liberal to the court. It is that it was the easier choice."

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Here's the thing: since rising to national prominence, Cruz has often looked like a complete grandstanding idiot to recreational watchers of political shenanigans like us. He's made his political bones by playing to the cheap seats with meaningless, vociferous opposition to whatever would get him headlines and more attention and cuddles from the far right wing of the Republican party.

The problem with that, of course, is that Cruz himself is actually supposed to be a brilliant man. Sure, he hasn't had a reason to really exercise his debate muscles in the Senate, but he was known for his debating prowess at Princeton. Then there's the fact that he's a Constitutional scholar, and one good enough to have been a clerk for the previous head of the U.S. Supreme Court, none other than Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Rehnquist was, of course, an incredibly conservative jurist, but he was also known as a chief justice who forged good relationships with the other justices on the court, no matter where their views fell on the political spectrum. Cruz recounted his warm memories of Rehnquist in his recent book, "A Time for Truth" (because everyone who runs for president in this day and age has to write a book.) Cruz wrote about what a brilliant man Rehnquist was, how he always drank a Miller Light at lunch and only hired three clerks each year because that gave him enough clerks to play doubles tennis. Cruz even somewhat awkwardly wrote about that one time he and Rehnquist accidentally watched porn with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (Cruz writes that a librarian was tutoring Rehnquist and O'Connor about how to use the internet when she tried to type in the word "cantaloupe" and misspelled it. A slew of pornographic images popped up onto the screen. The room was silent. "Oh my," O'Connor said.)

In short, Cruz considered Rehnquist a brilliant jurist and admired how the Rehnquist court was one where justices got along, regardless of their liberal or conservative leanings. 

After Rehnquist died in 2005 George W. Bush immediately nominated Roberts to fill the spot. Roberts was known as a fairly conservative justice, but in his confirmation hearings he told Congress that he didn't have one cohesive approach to interpreting the Constitution. Roberts compared his job as a judge to being a baseball umpire, where it's his job "to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat." In short, Roberts wasn't unclear about where he was coming from. And Cruz himself was an incredibly vocal supporter of the Roberts nomination. 

In an enthusiastic endorsement of Roberts in this 2005 National Review op-ed (which he titled, no joke, "The Right Stuff"), Cruz said he once asked Rehnquist who was the best lawyer around; Rehnquist said it was Roberts. Back in 2005, Cruz liked that Roberts was an actual judge and able to reason and think as a judge is supposed to instead of someone who is swayed by politics. Or, as he put it in his National Review endorsement:

"With judicial nominees, the charge of 'judicial activism' is much bandied about. Depending upon one’s perspective, what precisely constitutes activism is subject to debate. The simplest definition is whether a judge will substitute his own personal policy views for the clear dictates of the law. But, figuring out the dictates of law requires diligent study of legal precedent–no easy task. And for that enterprise, decades of litigating experience, at the highest levels, is invaluable–because it trains the judge to read precedent exactingly, and because it engenders an approach that looks to law and not to personal predilection. For that reason, Roberts’s particular personal views, which will no doubt be subject to extensive hermeneutic effort, matter far less than his judicial methodology. ....his opinion eschews his own policy preferences and instead rigorously reviews and applies the relevant legal precedents. That’s exactly what judges should do."

Cruz logic, circa 2005, makes perfect sense. Sure, every justice appointed to the Supreme Court has his or her own viewpoints on things, but the justices are there to rule, to be the highest court in the land and the last stop on questions about Constitutional issues — like, let's say, whether the Affordable Care Act is legal or whether gay people should have the right to get married — without worrying too much about what the Republican or Democratic factions are going to say about it. The court sometimes ends up ruling on highly controversial matters, but the Supremes themselves are supposed to use legal precedents to make their rulings. The justices aren't supposed to be political, as Cruz himself pointed out a decade ago. 

Yet on Wednesday night when Cruz's support of Roberts's nomination to the High Court came up, he stood onstage and stated that he would never have nominated Roberts. The sad part is that there was never any doubt he'd do anything else. Cruz has actually been trashing the Roberts court since June, at least, according to Business Insider. This time he just did it on national TV. 

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