Chief Justice John Roberts touts nonpartisan Supreme Court as impeachment battle begins

Roberts spoke near Trump Tower where the president was staying.

NEW YORK -- As a partisan battle over impeachment grips Washington, Chief Justice John Roberts, in a rare public appearance, defended the independence of the U.S. Supreme Court and importance of the rule of law in times of turmoil.

"They have their job to do and you have to recognize that," Roberts said of Congress and the White House. "In our branch, our job is to interpret the law and ensure compliance with the Constitution."

"I’ve been elected by nobody," Roberts added, touting both a spirit of independence and of humility, which he said he applies to issues involving public officials who have been elected by "millions of people."

Roberts never mentioned Trump or the impeachment controversy during the 70-minute event.

It was nearly a year ago, in November 2018, that Roberts and Trump engaged in an extraordinary back-and-forth of public statements over the president’s criticism of federal judges as politically biased.

"We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges," Roberts said at the time, in a rare statement issued in response to Trump. "What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them."

Trump fired back on Twitter, directly addressing Roberts: "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."

Asked by moderator Rabbi Mark Lipson about criticism of the court from Trump and high-profile Democrats, Roberts welcomed it -- but insisted the court would not be swayed.

"It does not affect how we do our work. We will decide cases according to the Constitution and our laws, without fear or favor," he said.

Roberts said much of the criticism directed at the court stems from a "misperception" about a clear partisan divide among the justices. "We don’t go about our work in a political manner," he insisted.

Of the 19 decisions last term decided by a 5-4 vote, just seven were decided by the majority of justices appointed by Republican presidents, Roberts noted.

"The point is: When you live in a politically polarized environment, people tend to see everything in those terms," Roberts said. "That’s not how we at the court function, and the results of our cases do not suggest otherwise."

Roberts addressed a near-capacity crowd of several thousand ticketed guests. The conversation was moderated by Lipson, a longtime Roberts family friend.

The chief justice will officially open his 15th term leading the Court on Oct. 7, when the justices convene to begin hearing oral arguments on a docket of hot-button cases involving gay rights, immigration and guns.

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