US Chief Justice rebukes Trump over ‘Obama judge’ jibe

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump and Chief Justice John Roberts have become involved in a war of words after the US president branded a judge who ruled against his migrant asylum order as an “Obama judge”.

It is the first time the Republican-appointed leader of the federal judiciary has offered even a hint of criticism of Mr Trump, who had previously criticised other federal judges who ruled against him.

In a brief but pointed statement, Mr Roberts strongly defended the independence of the federal judiciary and rejected the notion that judges are loyal to the presidents who appointed them.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them,” Mr Roberts said in a statement that was released by the Supreme Court after a query by The Associated Press.

On the day before Thanksgiving, he concluded: “The independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

Mr Trump hit back from his resort home in Florida, bluntly questioning the independence of federal judges appointed by his predecessor and others, and confirmed by the US Senate. He especially criticised those on California’s 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

“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,” the president tweeted.

If the 9th Circuit judges are independent, he said, “why are so many opposing view (on Border and Safety) cases filed there, and why are a vast number of those cases overturned. ... these rulings are making our country unsafe! Very dangerous and unwise!”

Before Mr Trump, it had been highly unusual for presidents to single out judges for personal criticism while a chief justice’s challenge to a president’s comments is unprecedented in modern times.

In the aftermath of Mr Trump’s appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, several justices have spoken out about judicial independence and the danger of having the court viewed merely as a political institution divided between five conservative Republicans and four liberal Democrats.

Mr Roberts is widely seen as the justice closest to the middle and likely to determine the outcome of high-profile cases that split the court.

Mr Trump has shown no reticence about criticising the judiciary.

Last year, the president scorned the “so-called judge” who made the first federal ruling against his travel ban. During the presidential campaign, he criticised Mr Roberts himself for the chief justice’s decisive vote in 2012 to preserve President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

The president also referred to an Indiana-born judge of Mexican descent who was presiding over a fraud lawsuit against Trump University as a Mexican who would be unable to rule fairly because of Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the US-Mexican border.

Mr Trump’s latest remarks were made on Tuesday when a reporter asked for his reaction to a ruling by US District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco that put the administration’s asylum policy on hold.

Under that new policy, Mr Trump declared no-one could apply for asylum except at an official border entry point. That tends to back migrants up for weeks, if not months.

“Every case that gets filed in the 9th Circuit, we get beaten. And then we end up having to go to the Supreme Court, like the travel ban, and we won,” Mr Trump said.

In fact, the initial travel ban ruling in 2017 was issued by US District Judge James Robart, an appointee of President George W Bush in Washington state. Mr Roberts, too, was appointed by Mr Bush.