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Hail to the Chief (Justice)

Presiding officer Chief Justice John Roberts answers during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 31.


Senate Television via Associated Press

The day after President


impeachment acquittal in the Senate, his Republican allies celebrated, his Democratic critics fumed, and Chief Justice

John Roberts

quietly went back across the street to his real job. That last part is worth a comment.

The Chief Justice is constitutionally required to preside at a presidential impeachment trial, but Democrats hoped he would aggrandize that role. Was Chief Justice Roberts aware, Senate Minority Leader

Chuck Schumer

asked him, that his predecessor “cast tiebreaking votes” twice in 1868, during the impeachment trial of President

Andrew Johnson


“I am,” the Chief responded. “The one concerned a motion to adjourn. The other concerned a motion to close deliberations. I do not regard those isolated episodes, 150 years ago, as sufficient to support a general authority to break ties.” It would be inappropriate, he added, for “an unelected official from a different branch of government” to assert such power.

Senators also had a chance to submit written inquiries for the Chief Justice to read aloud.

Elizabeth Warren

sent up a partisan bomb in a question for the House managers to answer. “At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government,” he read placidly, “does the fact that the Chief Justice is presiding over an impeachment trial, in which Republican Senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence, contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution?” As he finished, he fixed a stoic stare.

What a backfire. As Senator

Lisa Murkowski,

the Alaska Republican, said when she voted against witnesses: “Some of my colleagues intend to further politicize this process, and drag the Supreme Court into the fray, while attacking the Chief Justice.”

In brief closing remarks Wednesday, the Chief Justice thanked the Senate for its support as he “attempted to carry out ill-defined responsibilities.” He invited the politicians to his side of First Street: “We keep the front row of the gallery in our courtroom open for members of Congress who might want to drop by to see an argument—or to escape one.”

After presiding over President Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999, Chief Justice

William Rehnquist

adapted a line from an opera: “I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well.” Rehnquist’s former law clerk, John Roberts, has risen to that same standard.

Wonder Land: With Donald Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, the Star Wars-esque trilogy of Democratic attacks against his presidency has ended. But could a sequel trilogy be in the offing? Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria

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