When Chief Justice John Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings that he would simply "call balls and strikes" as a jurist on the nation's highest court, there was no reason to take him at his word. He was then -- and is now -- a committed conservative with a particular world view. He couldn't be completely impartial, and no one but the most naive citizen would expect him to be.
But Roberts had seemed to take seriously one part of his job as chief jurist: protecting what remained of the Supreme Court's reputation as an impartial arbiter of the U.S. Constitution. That reputation had already become frayed from the pulls and snags of increasingly bitter confirmation hearings and increasingly naked attempts by partisans to stack the court with their own. Still, Roberts stepped back from partisanship every now and then to try to preserve a semblance of impartiality -- notably in siding with the court's liberals in an early challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
That fig leaf of impartiality has now fallen away. The chief justice issued a very rare statement -- a harsh rebuke -- in response to ill-considered remarks by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday in front of the Supreme Court building. As the court took up a case on abortion rights, Schumer addressed a gathering of Roe v. Wade supporters with fiery -- and clearly inappropriate -- language in reference to the two newest jurists, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both conservatives:
"I want to tell you, Gorsuch; I want to tell you, Kavanaugh: You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won't know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions."
Schumer had no business saying that, as he later acknowledged. Speaking on the floor, the Senate later that day, he said, "I should not have used the words I used yesterday. They didn't come out the way I intended them to."
No, he should not have used those words. But they don't come close to the vindictiveness that President Donald J. Trump has dumped on a number of federal judges whose rulings haven't gone his way. And while Schumer is a U.S. senator from New York, Trump has the full power of the presidency, including an attorney general willing to use the Justice Department to punish Trump's enemies and elevate his friends.
Trump's war on an independent judiciary started during his presidential campaign, when he lashed out at Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was hearing a class-action lawsuit concerning students who said they had been defrauded by Trump University. Trump claimed that Curiel, who was born in Indiana, couldn't be impartial because he is of Mexican heritage.
"Let me just tell you, I've had horrible rulings, I've been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I'm building a wall, OK? I'm building a wall," he told CNN's Jake Tapper.
The president hasn't come to respect or appreciate an independent judiciary since then. In the Roger Stone case, he not only tried to intimidate District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson -- who wasn't having it -- but he also unleashed attacks on the jury forewoman, all but inviting violence against her in a string of unhinged tweets. "There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case. Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of 'Trump' and Stone," he wrote in one post.
Just last month, Trump went on a tear against Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, accusing them of bias against him. Speaking from India, the president told reporters, "I just don't know how they cannot recuse themselves from anything having to do with Trump or Trump-related."
How did Roberts respond to the attacks on the integrity of his colleagues? He said nothing. Two years ago, Roberts issued a vigorous defense of the federal judiciary after Trump fulminated against "Obama judges," but he didn't call the president by name. When Trump claimed Ginsburg "went wild" during his presidential campaign, Roberts responded with radio silence.
Of course, given the current makeup of the court, it's probably too late for even Roberts to pretend that it is an impartial body. Trump and his allies have seen to that.