U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arriving at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where Roberts administered the oath of office to President Barack Obama, Jan. 21, 2015. 
Photo by Win McNamee/AP

Chief Justice Roberts delivers an unexpected message to Trump

On the heels of the midterm elections, the Trump administration claimed vast new powers to block asylum seekers, effectively trying to rewrite asylum law from a presidential directive. Legal experts expected the policy to run into trouble in the courts.

Which is exactly what happened. U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar blocked the policy on Monday, explaining in a temporary restraining order, “Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden.”

When reporters asked Donald Trump yesterday for his reaction, the president said, “This was an Obama judge. And I’ll tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this anymore.” Referring to the federal judiciary’s 9th Circuit, which is widely seen as the most progressive circuit and where Tigar is located, Trump added, “It’s a disgrace.”

The comments apparently came to the attention of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who was not pleased.

Chief Justice John Roberts is pushing back against President Donald Trump for his description of a judge who ruled against Trump’s migrant asylum policy as an “Obama judge.”

It’s the first time the Republican-appointed leader of the federal judiciary has offered even a hint of criticism of Trump, who has previously blasted federal judges who ruled against him.

Roberts said Wednesday the U.S. doesn’t have “Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” He commented in a statement released by the Supreme Court after a query by The Associated Press.

It’s extremely unusual for the chief justice to make public comments like these, but in this case, it’s not just Roberts’ pushback against Trump that’s striking; it’s also his choice of venue.

Once in a while, a sitting Supreme Court justice will share a sentiment of note at an academic symposium or in a journal article, where it may or may not generate public attention. Today, however, John Roberts shared his concerns about the president’s rhetoric with the Associated Press.

It suggests the chief justice made a deliberate choice to ensure that his statement generated some attention. Roberts didn’t just want to rebuke Trump’s rhetoric, he wanted everyone to know he was rebuking Trump’s rhetoric.

To be sure, this week was not the first time this Republican president has taken cheap shots at his own country’s judiciary. When his executive order on so-called “sanctuary cities,” for example, Trump questioned the authority of an “unelected” judge. When an early iteration of Trump’s Muslim ban was struck down, he told the public that the United States’ legal system is “broken.”

As regular readers may recall, it was part of a series of related salvos – let’s not forget the references to a “so-called” federal judge and his racist rhetoric about Judge Gonzalo Curiel in 2016 – in which Trump expressed contempt for the judiciary. He’s even made the case that U.S. courts represent some kind of security threat.

Perhaps, yesterday, John Roberts decided that he’d seen enough.