John Roberts Was Already Chief Justice. But Now It’s His Court.

WASHINGTON — In a series of stunning decisions over the past two weeks, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has voted to expand L.G.B.T.Q. rights, protect the young immigrants known as Dreamers and strike down a Louisiana abortion law. In all three decisions, he voted with the court’s four-member liberal wing.

Those decisions heartened progressives and infuriated the chief justice’s usual conservative allies. But those reactions obscured a larger truth about Chief Justice Roberts: 15 years into his tenure, he now wields a level of influence that has caused experts to hunt for historical comparisons.

“Roberts is not only the most powerful player on the court,” said Lee Epstein, a law professor and political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. “He’s also the most powerful chief justice since at least 1937.”

An incrementalist and an institutionalist, the chief justice generally nudges the court to the right in small steps, with one eye on its prestige and legitimacy. He is impatient with legal shortcuts and, at only 65, can well afford to play the long game.

“Americans hoping for justice for women and unborn babies were let down again today by John Roberts,” said Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas. “The chief justice may believe that he’s protecting the institutional integrity of the court, but in reality, his politicized decision-making only undermines it.”

Conservatives said they suspected the chief justice was acting at least partly based on a distaste for Mr. Trump, who has for years lashed out at federal judges who rule against him and his policies. They cited the chief justice’s majority opinions rejecting the administration’s rationales in the cases on the census and the Dreamers.

A pair of cases concerning Mr. Trump’s efforts to block disclosure of his financial records are among those that remain to be decided by the court this term. They will test Chief Justice Roberts’s leadership, and his votes in them will add important details to the portrait of him that has emerged thus far.

Chief Justice Roberts has tangled with the president before, issuing an extraordinary statement in 2018 after Mr. Trump criticized a ruling from an “Obama judge.”

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” the chief justice said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

In other settings, the chief justice has insisted that the justices do not act as partisans. “We don’t work as Democrats or Republicans,” he said in 2016.

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