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The Mystery of John Roberts

By Linda Greenhouse, New York Times - July 12, 2012

In November 1991, the Supreme Court heard argument in Lee v. Weisman, on the question of whether a prayer recited by a member of the clergy at a public high school graduation violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The vote after argument was 5 to 4 to allow the prayer. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist gave the opinion-writing assignment to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

Some months later, Justice Kennedy sent a note to Justice Harry A. Blackmun, the senior justice on the dissenting side. He had changed his mind, Justice Kennedy said; the argument against allowing the prayer was the better interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Justice Blackmun, now the senior justice in the majority, had the prerogative of reassigning the opinion. He told Justice Kennedy to keep writing.

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