WASHINGTON, D.C – Supreme Judge John Roberts is likely to play a humble role in leading President Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings against the Senate, in line with his oft-repeated insistence that judges are not politicians.
Roberts makes the short trip from the Supreme Court to the Capitol on Thursday to be sworn in as the chair of the process, a duty required by the constitution.
After taking an oath to promise “impartial justice” in the third impeachment lawsuit against the President in US history, he will in turn ask 100 senators to promise the same thing.
The country’s last long look at Roberts came 14 years ago when he told the senators during his Supreme Court hearing that judges should be like baseball umpires and should impartially demand balls and strikes.
“Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the referee,” said Roberts.
His gray hair, the 64-year-old, moves from the camera-free, relative anonymity of the Supreme Court to the glare of the television lights in the Senate. On January 27, he celebrated his 65th birthday on the podium of the Senate.
Roberts has a finished model to follow: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was never the center of attention when he led President Bill Clinton’s Senate process.
It’s not like there isn’t much controversial brewing in his regular workplace. Before the end of June, the judges are expected to rule on cases involving arms, abortion, subpoenas for Trump financial reports, health and safety for LGBT people, and the fate of an Obama-era program that pre-deportates young immigrants protects. You could take up another case on President Barack Obama’s Health Act before the term ends.
Roberts and his Republican counterparts hold a conservative 5 to 4 majority in the Supreme Court. Roberts has a solid conservative court record, with a few notable exceptions that include maintaining the Health Act.
Trump was one of Roberts’ critics and beat up the top judge for his healthcare voices. While at least publicly ignoring these statements, Roberts bumped into Trump last year when the President, a Republican, hit an “Obama judge” who ruled against his immigrant asylum policy. Obama is a democrat.
The Supreme Court has moved to the right, and two other Trump representatives, Judges Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have joined. This development has made Roberts the closest justice to his ideological center, and he can best decide how far the court will move to the right or left, in any case that otherwise separates liberals and conservatives.
Roberts’ natural tendency not to take the limelight is reinforced by Senate rules that allow a majority to override decisions. The Senate’s indictment rules also allow Roberts to ask questions about Senate voting without making a decision beforehand, which could allow him to avoid allegations of injustice on both sides.
Unlike the Supreme Court appeal process, Roberts has practically no experience of carrying out a process, and the mechanisms of the process have not yet been clarified. Rehnquist had his chief aide at court, James Duff, and at least one clerk on hand. He regularly consulted the Senate MP before announcing decisions.
Roberts has a more flexible Supreme Court than Rehnquist, who would cut lawyers right in the middle if the red light came on to show that their time was up.
Whenever Roberts appears in public, in the courtroom, or anywhere else, he exudes a calm confidence that results, at least in part, from preparation. As the leading Supreme Court lawyer at the start of his career, Roberts tried whether he was ready to answer 1,000 questions even if he only had 80-100 questions during a typical 30-minute dispute, he told author Bryan Garner in an interview earlier his tenure as chief judge.
Roberts also has a quick mind that he used to resolve confusing situations. When the lights dimmed in 2016 and then went out during the clashes, Roberts quipped, “I knew we should have paid this bill.”
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