In July 2012, Donald Trump called in to CNBC’s “SquawkBox” show to rant about Chief Justice John Roberts’ surprise decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.
“I think John Roberts should be ashamed of himself,” Trump said, before questioning the Supreme Court justice’s intelligence. “He looks like a dummy, because, frankly, his decision does not seem to be written by [a] supposedly smart man.”
“Dummy” was just the beginning. Over the next four years, Trump tweeted that the chief justice’s decision was “bull***t,” irrational, “disloyal” and “stupidity.” He has insulted Roberts on Twitter nearly two dozen times, making the chief justice by far the biggest target of Trump’s ire on the court. That includes the court’s liberal leader, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had to apologize after calling Trump a “faker” last summer. He has tweeted about her just four times.
Though presidents have butted heads with the Supreme Court in the past, Roberts will be the first chief justice in history to swear in a new president who has so frequently and personally insulted him. (It’s unclear if Roberts shares Trump’s antipathy: He’s never been quoted commenting on the president-elect.) Trump’s very willingness to dispense with the political system’s norms of respect and deference for the judiciary could mean trouble for the pair’s relationship — and more Twitter rants — over the next four years.
Justice Kennedy should be proud of himself for sticking to his principles, in light of Justice Roberts' bullshit!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2012
If I win the presidency, my judicial appointments will do the right thing unlike Bush's appointee John Roberts on ObamaCare.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2015
Trump, 70, and Roberts, 61, are a study in opposites in style and temperament. Trump was elected partially for his willingness to thumb his nose at U.S. political institutions and insist they needed radical change, while Roberts sees himself as a guardian of the history and reputation of the nation’s highest court and of the law. On a personal level, Trump is a flashy and hard-nosed New York real estate magnate on his third marriage, while Roberts, who grew up in Indiana, carefully climbed his way up the legal ladder and now lives a quiet life in the D.C. suburbs with his family.
Roberts has been a reliably conservative vote in the court’s closely divided cases. He joined the decision allowing unlimited corporate spending in elections in the 2010 Citizens United case, struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and sided with the conservative minority against gay marriage in 2015.
But many conservatives, including Trump, consider his two votes upholding the Affordable Care Act a betrayal and have cast his appointment to the court as a Republican failure. Trump has vowed to nominate a judge who will more strictly enforce conservative causes.
The chief justice never wanted to be seen as a conservative warrior, however. In fact, he believes Americans’ trust in the Supreme Court is eroded when they associate justices and their legal decisions with their political beliefs instead of the law. He told journalist and law professor Jeff Rosen in 2007 that individual justices must be able to subordinate their own ideological agendas for the good of the reputation of the court — especially in an age of such polarization. “Politics are closely divided,” Roberts said then. “The same with the Congress. There ought to be some sense of some stability, if the government is not going to polarize completely. It’s a high priority to keep any kind of partisan divide out of the judiciary as well.”
Roberts, who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2005, vowed to work to build consensus on the court by putting forward narrower opinions that gain more votes over more sweeping 5-4 opinions when possible. In any given term, about half of the court’s decisions are unanimous, but the closely split ones tend to come in controversial cases that gain more media attention.
The chief justice loathes when politicians breach decorum by insulting the court or its justices. When President Obama criticized the Supreme Court justices to their faces for the Citizens United decision in his State of the Union address in 2010, Roberts was appalled. “I think it’s very troubling,” he told a group of law students at the time. Newsweek reported that the chief justice considered skipping the president’s next address in protest but relented because he worried it would be worse for the court’s reputation if all the conservative justices skipped a Democratic president’s State of the Union.
With the pugnacious Trump now at the helm of the country, Obama’s comments — which sparked countless think pieces and outraged responses from Republican lawmakers about the “rare rebuke” of a president to the court — seem somewhat quaint. One could imagine Trump aggressively taking to Twitter to criticize a decision — or a justice — that he didn’t like, stoking his most ardent supporters against the court.
Last summer, Trump railed against U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was handling civil cases against Trump University, at rallies and on Twitter. He said Curiel was a “disgrace,” who was biased against him because he’s Hispanic. Trump was widely denounced for questioning Curiel’s impartiality based on his ethnicity. For his year-end report on the state of the judiciary in December, Roberts wrote about the role of district judges, saying they deserve “tremendous respect.” It’s unclear if Curiel was on the chief justice’s mind, but Trump’s attacks on the judge are exactly the type of political browbeating Roberts would dislike.
But for all of Roberts’ anxiety about the potential politicization or denigration of the court that many observers believe Trump represents, the chief justice is a pragmatist at heart. Those who know him best say he recognizes that Trump’s win means that he will not be consigned to a decade or more in the minority. “I am sure he recognizes that the alternative [to Trump] would have had its own downsides that would have affected him very directly,” said a friend of Roberts’ who wished to remain anonymous discussing the chief justice’s personal opinions. “[Trump’s victory] put him in the majority, will let him advance the law the way he wants to advance the law. A Clinton win would have put him in the dissent for the rest of his life.”
Roberts will likely have no problem ignoring any personal attacks from Trump, given he’s been the target of conservative ire since his Obamacare vote. If the president attacks the court’s integrity, however, Roberts could make his displeasure known in an interview, as he did after Obama’s State of the Union rebuke. But don’t expect to see the @therealjohnroberts appear on your screen anytime soon. “He’s not going to start tweeting,” Roberts’ friend joked.
And it’s possible that Trump will warm to Roberts after the two meet on the dais Friday. A Trump transition source who did not wish to be identified discussing the president-elect said he believed Trump’s sister Maryanne Trump Barry, a federal judge, would be a “moderating force” on Trump and his attitude toward Roberts. “I think that relationship will eventually be impacted like almost everything with Trump by family relationships,” the source said.
Whether the men get along or not, Roberts has the advantage of a lifelong appointment. The Constitution’s framers believed such a system would help insulate judges from political pressures so they could remain independent and impartial.
“Roberts knows he will be chief justice long after Trump is done being president,” legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky said.
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