John Glover Roberts, a 25-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School, arrived in Washington in early 1980. Harvard Law professor Morton Horwitz described Roberts as “a conservative looking for a conservative ideology in American history,” and he found that ideology in the nation’s capital, first as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and then as an influential aide in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department. At the time, Rehnquist and the Reagan administration were at the vanguard of a new conservative counterrevolution in the law—a legal backlash against the historic and liberal-leaning civil rights laws of the 1960s.
Just months before Roberts came to Washington, the Supreme Court had significantly limited the scope of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. As a young lawyer, Roberts eagerly took up the conservative cause, becoming a key foot soldier in the effort to preserve that decision and weaken the VRA.
It was a fight Roberts would continue decades later, when he replaced Rehnquist as chief justice and authored the majority opinion in a landmark case gutting the VRA in 2013. Fifty years after the passage of the landmark civil rights law, and 35 years after he first worked so hard to dismantle it, Roberts remains at the center of an impassioned debate about voting rights in America, one that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.