Why Did the GOP Candidates Talk About John Roberts?

0916_GopDebate John Roberts
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 28, 2014. Roberts was much-discussed at the second GOP presidential debate Wednesday night. Larry Downing/Reuters

John Roberts was an unlikely guest at Wednesday night's second Republican presidential debate night. The chief justice of the Supreme Court isn't exactly a household name and unlike justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sonia Sotomayor, he wasn't appointed by a Democrat. But conservatives have become increasingly antsy about Roberts and how the GOP candidates will pick their Supreme Court justices, should they become president.

When Roberts was selected by President George W. Bush in 2005 to replace William Rehnquist as chief justice, conservatives cheered. Roberts had worked in the Reagan White House and the Justice Department. He'd been appointed to the second-highest court—the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals—by Bush, and had a conservative record there. While there was modest regret in conservative circles that the president did not select someone with a longer judicial track record, there wasn't too much angst. But Roberts left conservatives angry and crestfallen when he provided the crucial vote upholding Obamacare in 2012 and the again in 2014.

The 'Roberts Betrayal,' as conservatives saw it, echoed past justices who had disappointed their Republican predecessors, including Earl Warren and William Brennan (Dwight Eisenhower), Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell (Richard Nixon) and David Souter (George Herbert Walker Bush). That's why there was so much concern at the debate about another potential Roberts.

The problem is that no president can predict the voting habits of the men and women they put on the court. Mike Huckabee said that Democrats never have this problem, but that's not true. Justice Byron White, a John F. Kennedy appointee, left many liberals disappointed over the years on issues involving crime and reproductive rights. The fact remains that if you give someone a lifetime appointment, there's no telling what they might do.

Either way, the question of judicial nominations is highly relevant for the next president: three current Supreme Court justices—Scalia, Ginsburg and Kennedy—are over 80.