In a rare move on Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court chief justice spoke out against President Trump's insinuation that a judge appointed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, was not issuing a fair ruling in a high-profile immigration case against the administration. Trump did not handle the criticism well. In a Twitter thread on Wednesday evening, Trump told John Roberts to "study the numbers" on the outcomes of cases decided by different presidents' appointees.
"Sorry Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have 'Obama judges,' and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country," he wrote. "Please study the numbers, they are shocking. We need protection and security - these rulings are making our country unsafe!"
The case in question was the Trump administration's recent attempt to block legal asylum claims that don't come through an established checkpoint at the border. The move came in as a part of the president's campaign to stoke fear about a migrant caravan from Central America traveling toward the United States in seek of refuge. On Tuesday, Judge Jon S. Tigar, a district court judge in San Francisco, blocked the president's proclamation, and affirmed that asylum claims must be processed no matter where someone enters the country.
Irritated with the decision, Trump lashed out at Tigar, an Obama-era appointee, calling him "an Obama judge," and claiming that Tigar's political bias was responsible for the unfavorable outcome.
The 9th Circuit, where Tigar currently sits, has a reputation as a liberal court, overseeing federal appeals cases from nine western states. Trump has made it clear he's not a fan of the 9th Circuit, since it has struck down his controversial immigration agenda on multiple occasions. As far as "numbers" goes, its rate of overturned cases — meaning, cases subsequently flipped by the U.S. Supreme Court — is in fact higher than the median for district court circuits (79 percent compared to a median of 70 percent), but there are two other circuits with higher rates. The 6th circuit has an 87 percent overturn rate, and the 11th comes in at 85 percent.
"We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges," Roberts said in response to Trump's statements. "What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them." He added, "That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for."
Sparring with the president over judicial ethics is unusual, to the say the least, for the chief justice of the nation's highest court. Trump has repeatedly lashed out over high-profile decisions ruled against his administration, including the travel ban, the transgender military ban, and DACA protections. Even before the start of his presidency, Trump was questioning the impartiality of a judge in a Trump University case because he had Mexican heritage. Roberts steadfastly maintained his silence through all of this, even when Trump called him a "nightmare for conservatives," just before the inauguration.
But not everyone is convinced that condemning the president for breaking with norms is a good idea. "Ultimately, I think this sort of statement will backfire," Josh Blackman, a South Texas College of Law professor told The New York Times. "Trump will always have the upper hand to escalate his attacks on the judiciary. Roberts will invariably be criticized for staying quiet. In the end, the court comes out weaker in this sort of struggle."