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Chief Justice Roberts muted his responses in the last session

He is a savvy tactician early in his tenure

CNN  — 

When the chief justice of the United States suddenly lost his conservative majority last February, the question became how a man who had long appeared hardwired for success would respond to the upheaval.

Would John G. Roberts Jr. tack to the left to be part of a new majority and maintain control of decisions? Or would he dig in and become an unremitting dissenter, as might have been the way of the late Justice Antonin Scalia?

Roberts, a savvy tactician, appears to be strategically waiting until the political and judicial situation clarifies. He may be adopting the chess-like approach he has used in cases, thinking of each dispute in combination of what might come next. Right now he is holding his moves until it is clear what really is next for the court.

During the session that ended in late June, Roberts veered from patterns of fellow conservatives and muted his response. Anthony Kennedy, for his part, moved to the left, remaining as relevant as before the Scalia fallout. He provided the deciding votes, with the four liberals, to bolster abortion rights and race-conscious university admissions.

Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, meanwhile, bitterly warned in dissenting opinions about where the new court is headed, for example, on certain religious rights and gun control.

Roberts said remarkably little as he ended up on the losing side or saw the court deadlock on several closely watched cases this session. He wrote the fewest opinions of all justices, 11, according to a SCOTUSblog count of all majority, concurring and dissenting statements.

Roberts’ anger did flash at oral arguments, especially during the challenge by women’s health clinics to a strict Texas abortion regulation. But he let Alito and Thomas take the lead in putting frustration and fury down on paper.