Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has tried to portray himself as a nonpartisan adjudicator who is removed from politics — but Democrats’ attempts to impeach President Donald Trump are putting that reputation in jeopardy.
That’s according to Bloomberg News‘ Greg Stohr, who wrote in an op-ed Saturday that the chief justice’s constitutional obligation to oversee the Senate’s impeachment trial puts Roberts in an uncomfortable position.
“For many Americans, the impeachment trial will be the first time they have heard Roberts speak since his 2005 Senate confirmation hearing, when he likened judges to baseball umpires calling balls and strikes,” Stohr wrote. But this time, he’ll be playing with rules “likely to be unfamiliar to him,” according to Stohr, and “any ruling that Roberts makes could be overridden by the Senate.”
Roberts: The Impeachment Umpire
Roberts’ desire to appear nonpartisan has brought him into conflict with the president in the past. Last year, the chief justice slammed Trump over a comment he made about judges being biased against him.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts told the Associated Press. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
Those words didn’t go over well with Trump. “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,” the president tweeted in response.
But according to columnist Richard Wolf, “the chief justice’s role [in the Senate’s impeachment trial] is more umpire than judge or jury.”
“The Senate would acquit or convict the president; Roberts would rule on procedural matters and might break tie votes, but not on conviction, which requires a two-thirds majority of the 100-member Senate,” he wrote for USA Today. But that doesn’t mean Roberts isn’t about to be thrust into the realm of partisan politics.
“He’s obviously someone who does not embrace partisan politics and does not want to see the court become part of partisan politics. But he’s going to find himself in the middle of it, by constitutional design,” Richard Lazarus, a Harvard Law professor who was Roberts’ roommate in law school, said of the head justice, according to Stohr. “I think he’s going to want to make clear that he’s not a partisan and be very evenhanded in the rulings that he makes.”
“A trial without evidence”
Not everyone thinks Roberts will be put between a rock and a hard place, however. In his piece, Stohr points to University of Missouri law professor Frank Bowman, the author of High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump, who Stohr notes is skeptical that Roberts will actually need to do much once the trial rolls around.
“There’s not going to be any occasion for him to make any consequential rulings,” Bowman predicted, according to Stohr. “It’s pretty clear that this is going to be a trial without evidence, or at least any trial-like presentation of evidence.”
That seems to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s expectation, as well. “I would anticipate the chief justice would not actually make any rulings. He would simply submit motions to the body and we would vote,” he told reporters earlier this month, according to The Hill.
“But Roberts may not want to call a vote on every issue, and he could use some disputes as an opportunity to try to give the proceedings an aura of fairness,” Stohr points out.
For his part, “Roberts, through a Supreme Court spokeswoman, declined to comment” for Stohr’s column, the columnist said. We’ll just have to wait and see if the impeachment umpire ends up making the right calls.