What the chief justice must do

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has made a point of defending the independence and impartiality of the nation’s highest court. That stand will be tested when he presides at the Trump impeachment trial.

Jabin Botsford/Pool via Reuters/File
Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stands at a 2018 ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The Supreme Court, at most times the least visible of the three legs of the U.S. government, is about to be drawn reluctantly into the national spotlight by the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. 

That likelihood was undoubtedly on the mind of Chief Justice John Roberts as the new year dawned.

The Trump impeachment trial, when it does occur, will convene with Chief Justice Roberts presiding. The founders expected that the chief justice would provide an impartial facilitator for what would be a confrontation between the legislative and executive branches.

In his recent annual year-end remarks Chief Justice Roberts wrote of the need for civics education, and the eternal public vigilance necessary to ensure a healthy democracy endures. In some other year the document might have earned a shrug, a set of truisms deserving little comment. But in the current political atmosphere they took on heightened relevance.

Over the past 15 years the chief justice, an appointee of President George W. Bush, has consistently shown a conservative point of view in his rulings. But he’s also made a few significant departures from that camp, including a vote along with the court’s liberal justices that upheld the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” and another that rejected the inclusion of a citizenship question as part of the U.S. Census.

In the chief justice’s recent remarks he took care to defend the independence of the judiciary, which by staying out of partisan politics, he said, is then able to supply “a key source of national unity and stability.” 

He made a plea for civic education which, he said, “has fallen by the wayside.” An informed public is needed to “understand our government, and the protections it provides” in an age where “social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale.” Many observers saw those last words as a reference, at least in part, to the president’s frequent tweets.

“We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch,” Chief Justice Roberts said. In an earlier 2018 statement he wrote of how politics should not intrude on the judiciary. There are no “Obama judges” or “Trump judges,” he wrote. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

The chief justice himself will come under intense scrutiny as he presides at the impeachment trial. Will he show any favoritism on behalf of the president or his accusers? 

The role of the Supreme Court, the chief justice has said, is like that of a baseball umpire, who must call the balls and strikes as he sees them, unswayed by either competing team. 

In the coming impeachment trial, his ability to maintain a perception of total neutrality will greatly influence whether or not the trial is seen as fair and impartial.

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