NPR.org's Sen. Patrick Leahy To Preside Over Trump's Senate Impeachment Trial says:

Chief Justice John Roberts presided over Trump's first impeachment trial, but now that Trump is a former president, Roberts is not constitutionally obligated to preside.

The Constitution says, "When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside." And Roberts did that when Trump was tried last year. This time, however, the chief justice let it be known he did not want to preside now that Trump is no longer president. On Monday, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said Roberts would have no comment.

It is unclear whether Senate leaders ever consulted Roberts. More likely, Roberts, who has tried mightily to keep the Supreme Court out of politics, headed them off at the pass and made his views clear.

Question: How exactly did Justice Roberts "let it be known", "head them off at the pass" and "make his views clear" that he did not wish to preside over the 2nd presidential impeachment of forty-five? Was it really a question of preference or one of law?

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    What exactly are you getting at with "How exactly did Justice Roberts "let it be known"? Are you really just asking whether he called or texted or sent an email? Or is there something more I'm missing
    – divibisan
    Jan 26, 2021 at 17:56
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    I doubt that there is going to be a substatiated answer. It seems clear that Roberts used private channels, which could have been as simple as writing a private email. He didn't announce it on twitter! He could have made his views clear by telling a secretary to give a private and off-the-record briefing to a journalist.
    – James K
    Jan 26, 2021 at 17:59
  • @JamesK since a new agency has gone to lengths to report that the communication has happened, there is a chance that there is some level of documentation. From time to time things that are private become public, no? I'm always amazed when people leave comments of the class "Nobody will ever be able to answer this question." The question is challenging and may not be fully answered instantly, but what's the rush? Is there a rule that Politics SE questions must be instantly fully answerable? Instead, now won't people be able to keep an eye on this as the story inevitably leaks out?
    – uhoh
    Jan 27, 2021 at 0:16
  • 2
  • @uhoh Should Justice Roberts initiate a suo moto impeachment trial !?
    – Narasimham
    Jan 27, 2021 at 6:05

3 Answers 3


According to this Newsweek Fact-Check, there is no public evidence that Roberts was even asked to preside, much less overtly refused. It's possible (even likely) that either Schumer or Harris reached out privately, but no public record of any such communication exists.

Under the constitution, the Chief Justice is only required to preside over the trial of a sitting president, which is a nod to the dignity of both offices and the solemnity of the procedure, more than a practical necessity. Presiding over a Senate trial is a procedural matter of maintaining form and decorum; the presiding officer has no power to influence the outcome of the trial. And since the Court has a heavy workload of its own, which would suffer if the Chief Justice were absent, I imagine Roberts demurred (if he did) merely because he already has enough on his plate.

  • 16
    There's also a conflict of interest issue for a trial of a sitting president. The natural second choice for presiding officer would be the Vice President, who would find it hard to be unbiased there
    – divibisan
    Jan 26, 2021 at 18:04
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    "headed them off at the pass" implies that he made this statement before he was asked
    – OrangeDog
    Jan 27, 2021 at 10:18
  • So "On 1/25/21 AT 5:44 PM EST... Newsweek found no evidence that Roberts refused or was even asked to preside over the trial, nor does he have any legal obligation to do so." Do we know how hard Newsweek looked?
    – uhoh
    Jan 27, 2021 at 22:19
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    @uhoh: Newsweek is a reasonably credible news organization, not given to skimping on the details. We're not talking The Enquirer here, or One America News. And given the assumption that Newsweek is credible, the answer to your question is that we don't precisely know the answer to your question. We barely know enough to speculate. Though it is worth noting that Shumer said that Roberts declined, so they must have communicated at some point. Jan 27, 2021 at 22:46
  • 1
    @uhoh: I understand your point, and that's fine; you should do what you think is right. UT sometimes (you know) a question an't be answered as asked. But I do hope you get the answer you're looking for. Jan 28, 2021 at 2:07

According to CNN it was Schumer who made this public:

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in an interview on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Monday that "it was up to John Roberts whether he wanted to preside with a president who's no longer sitting. ... And he doesn't want to do it." The New York Democrat noted that the Constitution appears to suggest "the chief justice presides for a sitting president."

I have not seen any details as to how Roberts communicated this (to someone else). The only thing that Roberts himself made public is that he won't comment in public:

Since the US House of Representatives impeached Trump on January 13, Roberts has declined multiple requests for comment on his responsibility, if any, for a trial after Trump left office on January 20.

  • There is another good answer as well but this is the most helpful answer for me.
    – uhoh
    Jun 26, 2021 at 7:37

He told Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.


  • The source doesn't say they had this conversation. I only says that Schumer made that statement. Jan 28, 2021 at 13:59

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