U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts has his PR team in gear prior to impeachment hearings
This is as flattering a story as any pretend nonpartisan chief justice could ask for: The Associated Press’ headline reads, “Roberts will tap his inner umpire in impeachment trial.” That’s a reference to United States Chief Justice John Roberts’ comments at his confirmation hearings 14 years ago, when he insisted, “Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.” He declared that an umpire would be just what he would be on the Supreme Court, impartially declaring balls and strikes.
Then we got Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the very political decision to keep the Affordable Care Act, but declare mandatory Medicaid expansion unconstitutional, keeping millions of people from gaining health coverage. The Roberts court has been anything but nonpartisan, however much he’s tried to maintain his image. He’s apparently got a good PR team quietly working the refs ahead of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump in the Senate, over which he will preside. He’s getting quotes like this out in profiles: “He’s going to look the part, he’s going to play the part and he’s the last person who wants the part.” That’s from veteran SCOTUS litigator Carter Phillips. “I would be shocked if he suddenly becomes a very rigid jurist with respect to technical evidentiary rules,” Phillips told the AP’s Mark Sherman.
Sherman writes that Roberts “will be in the national spotlight, but will strive to be like that umpire — doing his best to avoid the partisan mire.” Of course he will. He’s got a legacy he’s trying to preserve, that image that he’s really not a partisan hack who has put his thumb on the scale for Republicans on both campaign financing and voting rights decisions. The hearings will allow him to keep up the pretense, however. Senate rules for impeachment allow him to preside in name only, deciding to put any questions to the Senate so he doesn’t have to rule on anything.
And he won’t. His predecessor, William Rehnquist, who presided over the Clinton impeachment, provides the precedent. “I did nothing in particular and I did it very well,” Rehnquist said a couple of years after the trial. That does put more pressure on individual Senate Republicans to make tough decisions, which Roberts is probably going to have no problems living with. It’s his own neck, and his legacy, that he’s going to be looking out for here, after all.