WASHINGTON, Jan 16 — During his Senate confirmation hearing to become chief justice of the US Supreme Court, John Roberts compared the position to that of an “umpire” above the political fray.
Nearly 15 years later, Roberts is headed back to the Senate, plunged into one of the bitterest political battles in US history — the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
As chief justice of the nation’s top court, the 64-year-old Roberts will preside over the proceedings to determine whether Trump should be removed from office for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
But unlike the hallowed courtrooms where judges wield unbridled power, Roberts will play a mostly ceremonial role in the Senate, where Trump’s Republican Party holds 53 seats and the Democrats 47.
“Roberts is most likely to serve as a dignified figurehead in an affair entirely dominated by the Republican senatorial caucus,” said Frank Bowman, a University of Missouri law professor, on SCOTUSblog, a website devoted to the Supreme Court.
“The Senate itself is the final authority on every procedural or evidentiary question,” Bowman said, with a simple majority of 51 senators deciding the rules for the trial and which witnesses will appear, if any.
“I would anticipate the chief justice would not actually make any rulings,” Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said in discussing Roberts’ role. “He would simply submit motions to the body and we would vote.”
A vote of two-thirds of the senators present is required to remove a president from office and that scenario is unlikely given the Republican majority in the chamber. Roberts could potentially cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie.
The Harvard-educated Roberts, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Republican president George W. Bush, has compiled a solidly conservative voting record on the top court, supporting restrictions on abortion, for example, and opposing same sex marriage.
But he has aligned himself on occasion with the liberal justices, notably with the deciding 2012 vote that paved the way for the health care law known as Obamacare.
That vote earned him the ire of many Republicans including Trump, who delivered a characteristically harsh and personal assessment of the chief justice, calling him a “disaster” and a “nightmare for conservatives.”
“Justice Roberts turned out to be an absolute disaster,” Trump told ABC News in a January 2016 interview. “He turned out to be an absolute disaster because he gave us Obamacare.”
The chief justice did not publicly reply to Trump’s remarks at the time and swore him in as the 45th president of the United States a year later.
In November 2018, however, Roberts and Trump engaged in a rare public spat after the president criticised an immigration ruling by an “Obama judge.”
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” the chief justice said in an unusual public statement.
“What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them,” Roberts said. “That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
Trump fired back. “Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have ‘Obama judges,’ and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country,” he tweeted.
Roberts’ staunch defence of the independence of the judiciary has been a hallmark of his tenure on the Supreme Court.
During his 2005 confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Roberts, then a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, stressed that he had no “agenda” or “platform.”
“Judges are not politicians who can promise to do certain things in exchange for votes,” he said. “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them.
“But it is a limited role,” he continued. “Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.”
Bowman, writing on SCOTUSblog, said this philosophy will likely guide Roberts during the Senate trial.
“Whatever his personal views about Trump, his most likely priority will be to avoid any appearance of partiality, which might imperil his own posture of judicial neutrality and with it the Supreme Court’s institutional legitimacy,” he said.
In that respect, Roberts is likely to follow the lead of the late chief justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the Senate impeachment trial of president Bill Clinton in 1999.
“I did nothing in particular and I did it very well,” Rehnquist said, cribbing a line from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Iolanthe.” — AFP