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Why Chief Justice Roberts’ response to Trump matters

In a rare move, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts responded to President Trump’s recent criticism of a judge who ruled against his new asylum rules. Roberts countered that “the U.S. does not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” Judy Woodruff speaks with the National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle for insight into this “very unusual” development.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a rare statement, the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, today pushed back at President Trump's most recent attacks on the judiciary.

    Roberts said that the United States doesn't have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges, adding that we should be thankful for an independent judiciary.

    This comes the day after Mr. Trump referred to the judge who ruled against his new asylum rules as an Obama judge.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This was an Obama judge. And I will tell you what. It's not going to happen like this anymore.

    And the Ninth Circuit is really something we have to take a look at, because it's — because it's not fair. People shouldn't be allowed to immediately run to this very friendly circuit and file their case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more, we are joined by our regular Supreme Court watcher, Marcia Coyle. She's the chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

    Hello, Marcia, and welcome back.

    You won't be surprised to know that it didn't take long for President Trump to respond to what the chief justice said.

    Here is what President Trump tweeted just this afternoon. He said: "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."

    So, Marcia, how unusual is it for a chief justice, any chief justice, but in particular this one, to take on the president?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, it is very unusual, Judy.

    I can't — well, first of all, I think it should be clear that he was asked to comment on the president's own comments, so it wasn't spontaneous. But I can tell you that, after observing him for almost 13 years, that Chief Justice Roberts is probably the most cautious of the justices in terms of sticking even a little toe into the political fray.

    You do not see him making appearances or speeches at any sort of partisan-related events, for example, the conservative Federalist Society's annual dinner. He restricts or limits his public comments to law schools, as well as meetings of judges.

    So I think this is something that has been on his mind, though, recently. If you recall, just last month, after the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, the chief justice also made some comments during one of those limited appearances that he makes, in which he talked about the kinds of judges we have.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we know it is the case, Marcia, that the Ninth Circuit does tend to be a circuit, appellate circuit, that does issue rulings in some instances, in a number of instances that tend to be more liberal than other circuits, just as we know some circuits issue opinions that tend to be more conservative.

    So does the president have a point here?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, the Ninth Circuit has been a punching bag for a number of years from the conservative side.

    I think it's important to realize that just about all presidents get frustrated with courts at times. I certainly remember that the Obama administration was very frustrated when its policies on immigration, on the environment were blocked or temporarily thwarted by federal district courts.

    So, as far as the Ninth Circuit goes, it's a huge circuit. It's the biggest circuit court that we have. It is probably right now still majority Democratic appointments. But it's a very diverse bench, and it just depends on what type of panel of three judges that you get when you file your appeal, or, if you're in the low — even lower court, in the district court, who you get.

    So I think, Judy, we all have to remember that these judges, when they come to the bench, are not blank slates. They got their appointments because they — most of them had political connections. They went through a political appointment process and confirmation process, and they have certain ideology.

    When they're faced with some very difficult, complicated constitutional and statutory issues, as they are facing now, because of policies by the Trump administration, new policies or rollbacks of old policies, sometimes, that ideology is going to play a role as they apply the standard tools that judges apply in trying to interpret the Constitution and federal laws.

    But they are not blank slates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it certainly is an unusual moment, I think, in the relationship between the president and the Supreme Court. And it's one that we are going to continue to watch.

    Marcia Coyle, with "The National Law Journal," thank you, Marcia.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then, late this evening, President Trump tweeted again.

    He wrote that there is talk of dividing up the Ninth Circuit Court into two or three circuits. That would require an act of Congress.

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