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In A Rare Move, Chief Justice Roberts Criticizes President Trump


John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, signaled he's had enough of a phrase President Trump has used for years.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Liberal Obama judges.

Very liberal Obama judges.

The liberal Obama judges who want to take away your Second Amendment.

INSKEEP: The president used that phrase one more time this week, criticizing a judge who blocked the president's rules for asylum-seekers. Yesterday, John Roberts issued a statement. We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. He said American judges treat people equally. Amy Howe covers the Supreme Court for the blog Howe On The Court. Welcome.

AMY HOWE: Hey. Good morning. Happy Thanksgiving.

INSKEEP: Thanks. Same to you. Can you think of another occasion where a chief justice calls out a president like this?

HOWE: This is very rare. It's not entirely unprecedented. Many people remember the 2010 episode where the president, Barack Obama, criticized the Supreme Court during the State of the Union. And what most people remember was that Justice Samuel Alito, who was in the audience, sort of mouthed - famously shook his head and mouthed the words not true. But what most - a lot of people don't remember is that, later on, the chief justice, John Roberts, when asked about it, said that the criticism was very troubling.

But this somehow feels different, the Roberts statement yesterday, because we've got the chief justice - you know, there, the president was criticizing the Supreme Court. Here, we have the chief justice talking about the president's criticism of one particular ruling by a federal trial judge. And even though the Roberts statement doesn't refer directly to the president, it's more pointed. He's saying that the president is essentially wrong when he's referring to the district judge, Jon Tigar, as an Obama judge. It's also different because you have a conservative chief justice criticizing a Republican president. And here, the chief justice didn't necessarily have to respond to the query by The Associated Press. But he chose to do so, I think, because he's frustrated and he was trying to send a message to the president that the judiciary's not your punching bag and also to the public. You know, he's been trying to promote the idea that the judiciary, no matter what the president says, is an independent branch of the government.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned Roberts was appointed by George W. Bush. That's something that we should note here. You said he was a conservative chief justice, although let's look at the president's basic point here. This is a rhetorical tool he uses a lot in many contexts. And essentially, the president is saying, never engage anyone's arguments, ever. Just check their tribe. And if they're in the wrong tribe, they're just wrong. And anyone who ever disagrees with me is the wrong tribe. That's what the president is saying here when he says Obama judge, for example. Do the judges that you cover routinely say, well, listen; I got to go with my tribe on this ruling?

HOWE: Well, that's - I think that that is another thing, I think, that upset Roberts. You know, if you looked at the president's whole statement, he was suggesting that when we get to the Supreme Court, we're going to get the ruling that I wanted and, you know, suggesting, perhaps, because there are five Republican appointees on the court. And I think that that also probably troubled Roberts - the idea that because we're all Republican appointees here - there are five of them - we're going to vote for the president. You know, there's a difference between having a conservative judicial philosophy and being politicized and necessarily voting for the president just because you may be - you know, sort of share conservative views.

INSKEEP: OK. Amy Howe, thanks so much. Good talking with you.

HOWE: Good to talk you, too. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: She the Supreme Court for her blog, Howe On The Court. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.