President Donald Trump rebuked the assertion of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts that the federal judiciary is politically independent. Roberts made his comments on Nov. 21, a day after Trump called a judge who ruled against his policy barring asylum for certain immigrants an “Obama judge.”
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a statement released by the Supreme Court in response to an Associated Press inquiry.
“What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
The statement did not mention the president by name.
Trump wrote a Nov. 21 response on Twitter: “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.”
Trump has repeatedly criticized federal courts. His opponents have called it an attack on the rule of law, while others have applauded him for calling out judicial activism, in which political preferences seep into judicial rulings.
Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, gave a speech last month criticizing judicial activism as “a threat to our representative government and the liberty it secures.”
“Too many judges believe it is their right, their duty, to act upon their sympathies and policy preferences,” he said.
As chief justice, Roberts presides over the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Constitution established the federal judiciary as a co-equal branch of government with the executive and legislative branches as part of a system of checks and balances on power. Presidents nominate federal judges and the Senate confirms them. The political leanings of judges are commonly assumed based on what partisan appointed them, though there are exceptions.
Roberts, who administered the oath of office to Trump, was appointed by Republican former President George W. Bush. But Trump didn’t spare him criticism for a 2012 ruling that preserved the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, a signature domestic policy of former President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
In a tweet after that ruling, Trump wrote, “Congratulations to John Roberts for making Americans hate the Supreme Court because of his BS.”
The recent Twitter spat occurred a day after Trump took aim at San Francisco U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar, who on Nov. 19 temporarily blocked an order by the president that barred asylum for immigrants who enter the country illegally from Mexico. Tigar was appointed by Obama.
“This was an Obama judge,” Trump said. “And I’ll tell you what. It’s not going to happen like this anymore.”
Trump also blasted the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from federal courts in nine western states including California and is known to lean politically left.
Trump called the 9th Circuit unfair and a “disgrace.” That court has ruled against Trump’s administration in several high-profile cases including his travel ban targeting several terror-prone Muslim-majority countries and his bid to rescind a program that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought into the country as minors.
In a on Nov. 21 tweet, Trump questioned the idea that the 9th Circuit “was indeed an ‘independent judiciary,'” and said its rulings “are making our country unsafe! Very dangerous and unwise!”
Judges in that region have also blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline project Trump has championed and his administration’s effort to ban transgender people from military service.
In the asylum case, Tigar issued a temporary restraining order against the asylum rules, calling them an “extreme departure” from prior practice.
Trump last year referred to a jurist who ruled against him on his travel ban as a “so-called judge.” As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump said a judge in a case involving Trump University was biased against him, calling him a “Trump hater.”
With the help of a Senate controlled by fellow Republicans, Trump has appointed a succession of conservative judges. His appointments of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court have solidified a conservative majority. Conservative judges tend to be “constitutionalists,” trying to interpret the Constitution based on its intended meaning. Left-leaning judges tend to adhere to the “living document” theory, reinterpreting the Constitution to fit modern trends.
Reuters contributed to this report.