What Happens If John Roberts Decides Not to Preside Over Trump’s Post-Presidency Impeachment Trial?
Several Republicans and Democrats familiar with the negotiations over Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial have said that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts does not want to preside.
A Politico report that broke the news reads as follows: “We’re hearing that Roberts, who for years has sought to keep the courts apolitical, was not happy he became a top target of the left during Trump’s first impeachment trial. ‘He wants no further part of this,’ one of our Hill sources says. A spokesperson for the chief justice declined to comment.”
As if it weren’t unprecedented enough for a president to have been impeached twice, Democratic lawmakers are hell-bent on holding an impeachment trial for a man who is no longer president. And it sounds like they’re going to get their wish: Senate leaders agreed Friday that the trial would begin Tuesday, February 9. It does not appear that Roberts’ decision is a factor either way.
This clown show needs some unpacking. First off, Roberts has very good reason to reject presiding over Trump’s impeachment trial. The Constitution states that the chief justice will preside when the president is tried. Not the ex-president, the current president. That alone should be sufficient.
Despite this, there may not be anything that expressly forbids Congress from impeaching and convicting former officials. Some legal experts have pointed out that “nothing in the text of the Constitution bars Congress from impeaching, convicting, and disqualifying former officials from holding future office.”
In light of all this, the radio silence of the Founders on this matter allows both sides to justify their support or opposition. Those in opposition say that because there’s nothing in the Constitution about trying a former president, there are no grounds to hold the trial. Those in support say that because there’s nothing in the Constitution about trying a former president, there is no legal reason to oppose the trial.
Furthermore, law professor Frank Bowman, speaking to the Washington Examiner, argued that if a trial is going to be held, it might be prudent for Roberts to preside.
“The vice president does have a personal interest in the outcome, insofar as conviction would eliminate Trump as a future political rival, either to President Biden or to Harris herself,” Bowman said. “I think the constitutionally safer call is that he should preside. That way, there can never be a later objection on the ground that the tribunal was not properly constituted.”
If Chief Justice Roberts decides to extricate himself from this mess, Democrats are said to be discussing the possibility of having Vice President Kamala Harris, who is also the president of the Senate, preside. Also being floated is president pro tempore and longest-serving senator Patrick Leahy.
Harris has a conflict of interest if she were to preside, however. And indeed that is why the Founders wanted the chief justice of a (theoretically) non-political entity of government to do so. Harris is not only of the opposite party and was on the ticket that defeated the Trump/Pence ticket, she might very well have aspirations for the presidency if Biden decides not to seek reelection. Trump himself may have his eye on the presidency once again as well, meaning that Harris would be presiding over the impeachment trial of a potential political opponent.
So if the legality of convicting an ex-president is gray, then it becomes a question of prudence. And prudence dictates that the impeachment trial should not proceed. The side that’s calling for “unity” is engaging in something fundamentally disunifying. Any attempt to convict a former president with no clear legal grounds is most definitely not a recipe for “unity” and “healing.” Our senators should just move on and worry about governing. Enough with the political shams and shenanigans.