Alas, Chief Justice John Roberts will wear a plain black robe, with no gold stripes, when he presides over Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial.
The news of Roberts’s sartorial selection comes from Bloomberg Law reporter Kimberly Robinson, who also relays a few other key details about the chief justice’s role in the impeachment. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas will serve as Roberts’s fill-in should he miss an argument, and the chief justice will be driven across the street from the Supreme Court, not walk.
By forgoing the stripes, Roberts is breaking the modern precedent set by the only other chief justice to preside over a presidential impeachment trial in the last 150 years. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wore stripes on the sleeves of his robe, as he had since 1995, during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial. The embellishments were inspired by the “one worn by the Lord Chancellor in a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe,” the Times explained at the time.
Reinquist’s choice to wear his standard, gold-striped robe was among the most consequential decisions he made at the trial. As he later put, quoting Iolanthe, “I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well.”
Frank Bowman, an impeachment expert at the University of Missouri School of Law, wrote recently on SCOTUSblog that even though the Constitution mandates a role for the chief justice in impeachment, it’s a role with no power. Therefore, he writes, “Roberts is most likely to serve as a dignified figurehead in an affair entirely dominated by the Republican senatorial caucus.”