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. (See Controversy.) 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.