Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will play a major role in President Donald Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial, but his actual power in the proceedings is likely to be limited.
According to the Constitution, the Supreme Court’s chief “shall preside” over a Senate impeachment trial. Normally, that power would be given to the vice president (who regularly oversees the chamber), but because of potential conflicts of interest, the framers of the 1787 text handed the gavel to the chief justice.
But the nation’s founding document doesn’t make it clear exactly how the Supreme Court chief should conduct himself or herself during the process. And while the presiding officer’s role is slightly more defined under the Senate impeachment guidelines, it is still the lawmakers who have the final say.
A simple majority vote can overrule any decisions made by Roberts during the trial. Plus, the rules give the chief justice the option to punt on any decision-making and defer questions to a Senate vote.
But one of the biggest areas Roberts where could make a difference is witness testimony, which has become a major issue in Trump’s case. According to the Senate rulebook, the chief justice “may rule on all questions of evidence.”
For weeks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has withheld sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate until Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to a resolution that deals with the introduction of new witnesses and documents during the trial. Congressional Democrats want the upper chamber to call four witnesses: former national security adviser John Bolton, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey and assistant to the president Robert Blair.
But McConnell announced earlier this week that he had the votes necessary to move forward on setting the trial’s rules without any Democratic support. The rules would likely mirror those in President Bill Clinton’s case in 1999, during which senators voted mid-trial on whether to introduce new witnesses or documents.
“I hope the chief justice would understand the need for the facts,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN last month. But the New York Democrat acknowledged that Roberts is likely to defer all major decisions to lawmakers, which would be consistent with past impeachment trials.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the Clinton trial, left the questions related to witnesses to the senators, instead of ruling on them first. “I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well,” he said after the trial.
Roberts, who was appointed to the high court by President George W. Bush, is a conservative justice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will come to the president’s aid. In fact, his relationship with the president has been strained. During his 2016 campaign, Trump called the justice a “nightmare” and a “disgrace.”
The two traded words in 2018 after Trump slammed a jurist who ruled against his administration’s attempt to stop some migrants from seeking asylum at the border as an “Obama judge.” Roberts fired back by asserting that the United States doesn’t have “Obama” or “Trump” judges but rather “dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
At the end of 2019, Roberts appeared to allude to his upcoming role in the Senate impeachment process in his annual New Year’s report.
“We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity and dispatch,” he said. “As the new year begins and we turn to the tasks before us, we should each resolve to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”