Why John Roberts is sweating

If legal battles crucial to Trump's survival reach the Supreme Court, the chief justice may cast the deciding vote

John Roberts.
(Image credit: Jabin Botsford - Pool/Getty Images)

This is the editor’s letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

John Roberts must be feeling a deep sense of dread. As the nation lurches into the constitutional crisis that's been inevitable since the day Donald Trump moved into the White House, the chief justice of the Supreme Court may soon find himself casting the vote that ends — or saves — Trump's presidency. Roberts has been waging a campaign to convince Americans that the Supreme Court is not a partisan body — that it stands apart from the nation's bitter polarization. "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges," Roberts said last year. To strengthen public perception of the court's legitimacy, Roberts has strategically chosen to become an occasional swing vote, joining the four liberal justices when he deems it prudent. But his efforts to portray the court as a neutral arbiter may not survive the next six months. In its new term, the justices are wading into such incendiary issues as state abortion restrictions, gun control, and whether it's legal to fire employees because they're gay or transgender. And impeachment is now roaring down the tracks.

If the House votes to impeach Trump, it will be Roberts' constitutional duty to preside over the president's trial in the Senate, which promises to be a wildly partisan affair. Even before that trial, Roberts and his court may have to rule on legal battles that could decide Trump's fate. The president has refused to turn over his tax returns to Congress in defiance of the law. He has blocked aides and allies from responding to congressional subpoenas to testify or turn over evidence. Now the White House even contends that it can totally refuse to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, which it calls "unconstitutional." That claim leaves Congress and the president at an impasse unprecedented in our history — one that only the third branch of government can resolve. History is calling on line two, Mr. Chief Justice. Please pick up.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up
To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us