John Roberts doesn’t talk politics as a rule and— until now—the US Supreme Court’s chief justice has never publicly criticized president Donald Trump.
Today (Nov. 21) Roberts apparently could not help himself after Trump stepped over another line. The president criticized a federal court ruling in California that granted a temporary restraining order against his administration’s proposed asylum ban.
“This was an Obama judge. And I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this anymore,” Trump said yesterday.
Calling Jon Tigar an “Obama judge” really rubbed Roberts the wrong way. Asked by the Associated Press what he made of this comment, the chief justice uncharacteristically responded with an indirect rebuke of the president, saying, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
This sentiment may seem alien to the president and indeed many Americans who see the judiciary as a political body and judges as ideologues who advance party goals. However, an independent judiciary is critical to the administration of justice and to American government. It’s written into the Constitution, the document that judges owe their allegiance to above all else.
While it’s true that presidents do appoint judges with the advice and consent of the Senate, Roberts is right to emphasize the important and unusual role that judges play. They have a duty to uphold and interpret the law and the Constitution, not to please the president who appoints them. Enshrined in the nation’s founding legal document, this freedom from influence enables judges to decide in the interest of justice, not politics.
Still, the president disagreed with the chief justice in two tweets this afternoon. He insisted that there are “Obama judges” and that an independent judiciary is an illusion, asking Roberts to “study the numbers.”
Just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, Roberts reminded Americans of a reason to be grateful. “[An] independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for,” he said. And the president’s responses to his comments made that fact all the more apparent.