WASHINGTON - It was early Wednesday morning, and Chief Justice John Roberts had had enough. He had been listening to increasingly acid exchanges at the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, and he was ready to chastise the House managers and the president's lawyers.
And he did it in the characteristically mild and evenhanded tones he uses when he presides over the Supreme Court.
"I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president's counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world's greatest deliberative body," Roberts said.
The remarks highlighted the chief justice's uncomfortable position as he begins fulfilling his constitutional obligation to preside over presidential impeachment trials. He finds himself in an unwelcome spotlight, subject to intense and unfamiliar scrutiny. The role is limited, and there is no particular reason to think he wants to test its limits.
Whatever one thinks of the chief justice's famous comparison of judges to umpires at his 2005 confirmation hearings, he is almost certainly trying to be an umpire now, staying as far away from perceived partisanship as he can. His central goal is to return to his day job with his reputation and that of his court undiminished by accusations of bias.
"Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire," he said in 2005.
The Constitution says almost nothing about the chief justice's role in presidential impeachment trials. This is the entirety of its discussion of the matter: "When the president of the United States is tried, the chief justice shall preside."
As a consequence, just what the chief justice is meant to do is contested. But history and the Senate's rules suggest that the job is largely ceremonial and that any rulings the chief justice makes can be overturned by a majority vote.
Roberts makes only rare public appearances, and the Supreme Court does not allow camera coverage of its arguments. His duties at the impeachment trial will give the public its first extended look at the chief justice since his confirmation hearings.
When the chief justice does appear in public, he often denounces partisan divisions and insists that the Supreme Court is above politics.
In remarks in 2014 at the University of Nebraska, for instance he said he was worried that the rancor and gridlock in Washington would affect perceptions of the court. "I don't want it to spill over and affect us," he said. "That's not the way we do business. We're not Republicans or Democrats."
Now the chief justice must navigate that rancor himself.
His early-morning remarks followed a combative argument from Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., during a debate over issuing a subpoena to John R. Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser. Nadler said voting against the subpoena was treacherous and an endorsement of a cover-up.
Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, responded that Nadler should be embarrassed about the way he had addressed the Senate. "You're not in charge here," Cipollone said.
Roberts then spoke up, saying that he expected more of the institution he was visiting, which likes to call itself "the world's greatest deliberative body."
"One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse," he said.
Roberts, who has a summa cum laude degree in history from Harvard and likes to recount quirky episodes from history to make his points, proceeded to describe an exchange during the impeachment trial of a federal judge, Charles Swayne.
"In the 1905 Swayne trial, a senator objected when one of the managers used the word 'pettifogging' and the presiding officer said the word ought not to have been used," Roberts said. "I don't think we need to aspire to that high a standard, but I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are."
The chief justice's public remarks and year-end reports are studded with similar historical anecdotes, and he often seems to use them to address, obliquely but unmistakably, his views on current controversies.
In his 2019 report, for instance, he denounced false information spread on social media and warned against threats to democracy by describing a riot at which John Jay, an author of the Federalist Papers and later the first chief justice, was struck in the head by a rock "thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor."
Jay and his colleagues, Roberts wrote, "ultimately succeeded in convincing the public of the virtues of the principles embodied in the Constitution."
"Those principles leave no place for mob violence," the chief justice wrote. "But in the ensuing years, we have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside. In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public's need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital. The judiciary has an important role to play in civic education."
After only a few hours of sleep, the chief justice was back on the bench when the Supreme Court convened at 10 a.m. for a major religion case. He seemed alert, even chipper, and he appeared pleased to have returned, if only briefly, to familiar surroundings, to try to maintain order again.
As a long question from Justice Sonia Sotomayor showed no signs of concluding, he addressed a government lawyer. "Perhaps you could comment, counsel," the chief justice said, cutting off his colleague.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked his own long question but gave the lawyer to whom he had posed it an option. "You don't have to answer if you don't want to," Breyer said.
Roberts gave the lawyer a nudge. "I recommend it, though," he said, eliciting an answer to Breyer's question.
The arguments will be the court's last until Feb. 24, though the chief justice has plenty of work to do in the meantime in handling a docket bristling with big cases, including ones on abortion, guns and gay rights.
Several cases concern Trump and his programs, including three on whether to allow release of Trump's financial records and one on the president's efforts to withdraw protection from deportation for young immigrants.
But one day into his uncomfortable role, he has already outdone his predecessor. At the last impeachment trial, of President Bill Clinton in 1999, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did as little as possible and gained attention mostly for his decision to wear black judicial robes adorned with four gold stripes on each sleeve.
On Wednesday afternoon, back presiding in the Senate chamber, Roberts was praised by one House manager, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California. "I want to begin by thanking you, chief justice, for a very long day, for the way you have presided over these proceedings," Schiff said.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a former law clerk for the chief justice, told reporters Wednesday that the admonishment was "a very extraordinary thing."
"I have never heard him deliver an admonishment like that from the bench, ever," Hawley said. "He chooses his words very, very carefully."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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