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How John Roberts will approach his role in Trump’s impeachment trial

Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump -- only the third person ever to serve in that role. What exactly are his responsibilities, and how is Roberts’ own character likely to shape his contributions? The National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle and CNN’s Joan Biskupic, both authors of books about the chief justice, join John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting, U.S. senators were sworn in as the jurors in President Trump's impeachment trial today by Chief Justice John Roberts.

    John Yang examines the role Roberts has in the proceedings.

  • John Yang:

    The Constitution mentions the Supreme Court chief justice only once, specifying that he — and, so far, they have all been men — shall preside over impeachment trials of presidents.

    John Roberts will be only the third person in history to be in that role. What exactly are his responsibilities, and how is he likely to carry them out?

    We're fortunate to have with us two close observers of John Roberts.

    Joan Biskupic is CNN's legal analyst and author of "The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts." And Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal" and author of "The Roberts Court: The Struggle for the Constitution."

    Joan, Marcia, thanks so much being with us.

    Marcia, what do we know about why the writers of the Constitution put impeachment trials in the Senate and put the chief justice of the Supreme Court as the presiding officer?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, John, it's sort of usual.

    Initially, they would put the impeachment trial in the Supreme Court. There were a couple of plans that would do that. But Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers Number 65 made a very strong argument against keeping impeachment in the Supreme Court, for a number of reasons.

    First of all, he said impeachment is inherently a political process, and the Senate was competent enough and independent enough to take on this kind of a task, and, because they were elected representatives, they were more likely to reconcile the public to any decision that was made.

    He also said that the impeachment process was going to require more flexibility and discretion than a court of law and judges could give, and should be decided by a much larger body than a small number of judges.

    And, finally, and maybe more — most importantly, if a president were convicted in the impeachment trial and later faced criminal charges, was convicted, it would be just terribly unfair to make that former president face the same judges who convicted him in an impeachment trial.

  • John Yang:

    Joan, what's his role? Is he like the judge, a trial judge at a criminal trial?

  • Joan Biskupic:

    No, not at all. It's a whole different animal.

    The senators themselves sit as a court, juror/judges themselves. And the chief has a distinctly different role than what he has across the street, when he presides at the Supreme Court.

    He's a presiding officer now. He will not have a vote, as has across the street at the court. He will essentially make the trains run. He will follow the lead of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but he's there in much more of a ministerial role than a substantive one.

    The Constitution does say that he should preside. And then the Senate has a set of rules, most recently revised in 1986, which says that he could make determinations on questions of witnesses and evidence, but a majority of the Senate would overrule him, if it so desired.

  • John Yang:

    The two of you, each of you both know about John Roberts very well. You have both written books about John Roberts.

    Marcia, what's your sense of how — what his approach is going to be? How is he likely to be approaching this job?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I'd say, first, he will be thoroughly prepared.

    And, second, he will be scrupulously fair. He is — and from what I have seen of him, he's very cautious. If there is anything controversial that is presented to him to rule upon, and if he has the option of sending it to the Senate, full Senate, to vote on, he will do that, because, I think, he can cares tremendously about how the public views the institution of the Supreme Court, and that it not be viewed as a partisan institution.

    I say thoroughly prepared because that's how he has been since he was an appellate lawyer who would pore over his notes and points that he was going to make in arguments to the Supreme Court, and scrupulously fair, not only because of his concern for the institution, but it's how he rules or how he presides over the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Joan Biskupic:

    The other thing is, he happens to have been mentored by the man who presided over the Bill Clinton impeachment trial, William Rehnquist. He was a law clerk to then Associate Justice William Rehnquist back in '80-'81.

    And Chief Justice Rehnquist famously took a page from Gilbert and Sullivan, a line there that said, after — after he presided, I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well.

    So the former chief had really tried to narrow his role. And I think current Chief Justice John Roberts would want to do the same. He does not want to get into a position of tipping things one way or another for or against President Trump, because the other thing we need to remember is that, indeed, coming in March, just a few weeks after this trial, will be the Supreme Court looking at three different cases involving President Donald Trump and his tax returns and financial records that have been subpoenaed.

    So, he has enough responsibility over the fate of President Trump that he does not want that to be in his hands at the Senate.

  • John Yang:

    Joan, do you mentioned the cases, the Supreme Court cases that are pending , involving the president, that he is a party in.

    The president and the chief justice have also in the past exchanged some rather pointed words.

  • Joan Biskupic:


    They have a public relationship in terms of criticism that dates actually to 2012, after John Roberts cast the deciding vote that upheld the Affordable Care Act. Then businessman Donald Trump took to Twitter and said, take a look at him. He's just trying to favor the Georgetown set or something like that.

    And he's attacked the court and Chief Justice Roberts on Twitter before. And then, most recently, though, what most people will remember is that, back in November of 2018, President Trump derided a judge who had ruled against him in a case as an Obama judge.

    And John Roberts did something unusual. He issued a public statement that said, there are no Obama judges, there are no Trump judges. What we have are a group of men and women wearing robes committed to impartial justice.

    To pick up a line that he used during his 2005 Senate confirmation hearings, we're just umpires just calling balls and stripes — strikes — calling balls and strikes, and that's what he will want to do at the Senate trial.

  • John Yang:

    And he will be behind home plate in the Senate trail.


  • John Yang:

    Joan Biskupic and Marcia Coyle, thank you very much.

  • Joan Biskupic:

    Thank you, John.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    A pleasure, John.

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