Supreme Court

Did John Roberts Foreshadow His ObamaCare Decision With a Reference to a 1927 Oscar Winning War Movie?

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Is there no one in charge at the Department of Close Readings? The Wall Street Journal, which today recalls an instance in which an odd movie reference from Supreme Court Justice John Roberts may have foreshadowed his eventual decision to uphold ObamaCare, has either stumbled onto a weirdly telling anecdote the Chief Justice or slow-news-week SCOTUS Kremlinology has gotten completely out of hand. Here's the story, which took place on May 16 at the Supreme Court musicale, which is apparently "an annual event where prominent musicians serenade the justices": 

When the concert ended, Chief Justice Roberts rose to offer parting words. After the customary thanks to the participants, however, he pivoted to a seeming non-sequitur, noting that Justice Ginsburg had scheduled the event on what he deemed an auspicious date, the 83rd anniversary of the first Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood.

The top prize, he recalled, had gone to "Wings," a semi-silent film about World War I flying aces. The chief justice relayed the rarely-screened picture's plot in remarkable detail. The story involves two American flyboys, Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), hometown pals in a kind of love triangle with Mary, an ambulance driver played by Clara Bow.

The climactic sequence, the chief justice recounted, sees David shot down behind enemy lines. Surviving the crash, he steals a German plane and flies it toward the American base — only to be spotted by his Jack, then hell-bent on making the Jerries pay for downing his buddy. Not realizing it's David in the enemy cockpit, Jack shoots down the German plane, killing David. Jack will carry forever his guilt for the tragic error.

Despite Chief Justice Roberts's affection for cinema, the apparently random disquisition left many who had come to hear Brahms mystified. Yet the chief justice clearly wanted his audience — including seven of his eight colleagues — to reflect on this narrative wholly unrelated to the musical program.

At the reception that followed, a Wall Street Journal correspondent suggested that there must be a hidden meaning — an allegory, perhaps, for shifting alliances in the health care case, then under deliberation. The correspondent speculated that the address could indicate that a justice who typically votes in lockstep with another — like, say, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito – somehow had been forced to adopt the enemy's trappings, apparently switching sides in their war to make the world "safe for democracy."

It's a stretch for sure. But given that justices are used to arguing with each other indirectly through their questions during oral arguments, it doesn't strike me as entirely impossible that John Roberts was planting a clue, if only for the other justices.