Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and President Donald Trump took swipes at each other Wednesday in an extraordinary exchange over just how partisan federal courts really are.
Roberts said Wednesday morning there are no “Obama judges or Trump judges” after the president attacked the judge who ruled against his attempt to restrict asylum seekers at the border earlier this week.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a statement. “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.”
Later in the afternoon, Trump hit back with two posts on Twitter:
“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. It would be great if the 9th Circuit was indeed an ‘independent judiciary,’ but if it is why…..,” the president wrote, followed by: “…..are so many opposing view (on Border and Safety) cases filed there, and why are a vast number of those cases overturned. Please study the numbers, they are shocking. We need protection and security — these rulings are making our country unsafe! Very dangerous and unwise!”
The statement from Roberts, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, was a stark divergence from the chief justice’s stoic aversion to publicly criticizing Trump, even as the president has railed against federal judges who did not rule in his favor.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, called Trump’s comments against the judiciary “unprecedented” in modern history and praised Roberts for defending the Judicial branch. Chief justices have historical avoided fighting with the other co-equal branches of government, but Tobias said he was “heartened” by Wednesday’s break from deference to keep Trump in his lane.
“I think it’s great that the chief justice has said something, because the Senate has done nothing on these issues and somebody has to protect the independence of the judiciary,” Tobias said. “So I’m not troubled.”
The Associated Press first reported Roberts’ comments.
Talking to reporters at the White House on Tuesday, Trump criticized Judge Jon Tigar of U.S. District Court in Northern California, who ruled against his policy announced this month that would require migrants to apply for asylum at legal border crossings. Currently, migrants can present themselves to immigration officers after illegally crossing the border and request asylum. Cases from the Northern District of California are appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A number of advocacy groups sued the Trump administration shortly after it announced the policy, and Tigar issued a temporary restraining order effectively thwarting the president’s efforts. Trump on Tuesday accused Tigar of being an “Obama judge” and called the 9th Circuit a “disgrace.” Tigar was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012.
“Every case gets filed in the 9th Circuit because they know that’s not law. They know that’s not what this country stands for. Every case that gets filed in the 9th Circuit, we get beaten.” Trump said. “People should not be allowed to immediately run to this very friendly circuit and then file their case.”
He also said, “The 9th Circuit is really something we have to take a look at because it’s not fair.”
Trump added that he felt confident the case over his asylum policy would go to the Supreme Court where his administration would prevail — similar to his travel ban on citizens of several majority Muslim countries. A modified version of that policy was upheld in the Supreme Court after several challenges in lower federal courts, with Roberts writing the majority opinion in that case.
Even before Trump’s presidency, Republicans have tried to fill federal courts with conservative judges, blocking Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland from getting a Senate vote. Trump ultimately filled the seat left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death with Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Senate Republicans stalled several of Obama’s appointees to federal courts until former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unleashed the “nuclear option” to change Senate rules requiring only a simple majority to approve most federal judicial nominations.
This year, Republicans and Democrats engaged in a dramatic fight over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh — Trump’s second nominee to the high court — which was mired in allegations of sexual assault. Both parties accused each other of toying with parliamentary procedure and manipulation in order to block or ram through the confirmation.
Trump has a track record of attacking the judiciary. He disparaged a federal judge in Hawaii last year as practicing “unprecedented judicial overreach” when he blocked an executive order barring entry to citizens of some majority Muslim countries.