US President Donald Trump and Chief Justice John Roberts clashed in an extraordinary public dispute over the independence of America’s judiciary, with Roberts bluntly rebuking the president for denouncing a judge who rejected his migrant asylum policy as an “Obama judge.” There’s no such thing, Roberts declared Wednesday in a strongly worded statement contradicting Trump and defending judicial independence.
Never silent for long, Trump defended his own comment, tweeting defiantly, “Sorry Justice Roberts.” The pre-Thanksgiving dustup was the first time that Roberts, the Republican-appointed leader of the federal judiciary, has offered even a hint of criticism of Trump, who has several times blasted federal judges who have ruled against him.
Before now, it has been highly unusual for a president to single out judges for personal criticism. And a chief justice’s challenge to a president’s comments is downright unprecedented in modern times.
It seemed a fight that Trump would relish but one that Roberts has taken pains to avoid.
But with Roberts’ court feeling the heat over the president’s appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Roberts and several of his colleagues have gone out of their way to rebut perceptions of the court as a political institution divided between five conservative Republicans and four liberal Democrats.
Trump’s appointments to the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have themselves spurred charges that the courts are becoming more politicised.
As the justice widely seen as closest to the court’s middle, Roberts could determine the outcome of high-profile cases that split the court.
The new drama began with remarks Trump made on Tuesday, in which he went after a judge who ruled against his migrant asylum order. The president claimed, not for the first time, that the federal appeals court based in San Francisco was biased against him.
Roberts had refused to comment on Trump’s earlier attacks on judges, including the chief justice himself. But on Wednesday, after a query by The Associated Press, he spoke up for the independence of the federal judiciary and rejected the notion that judges are loyal to the presidents who appoint them.