Chief Justice John Roberts issued a rare statement rebuking Chuck Schumer for comments the Senate minority leader made about Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Schumer, speaking at a rally of abortion rights supporters, appeared to threaten Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s two Supreme Court nominees who were confirmed after bruising nomination fights.
“I want to tell you Gorsuch. I want to tell you Kavanaugh. You have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions,” Schumer said, turning to look at the Supreme Court building.
Schumer went on to say, “The bottom line is very simple: we will stand with the American people. We will stand with American women. We will tell President Trump and Senate Republicans who have stacked the court with right-wing ideologues, that you’re gonna be gone in November and you will never be able to do what you’re trying to do now, ever, ever again. You hear that over there on the far-right? You’re gone in November.”
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Roberts said: “This morning, Senator Schumer spoke at a rally in front of the Supreme Court while a case was being argued inside. Senator Schumer referred to two Members of the Court by name and said he wanted to tell them that ‘You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You will not know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.’ Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous. All Members of the Court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others erupted in anger over the statements. On Thursday, Schumer took to the Senate floor to explain.
“I should not have used the words I used,” he said. “They didn’t come out the way I intended,” he explained, and added “my point was that there would be political consequences for President Trump and Senate Republicans if the Supreme Court, with the newly confirmed justices stripped away at a woman’s right to choose.”
“I shouldn’t have used the words I did, but in no way was I making a threat, I never, never would do such a thing.”
Schumer’s comments on Wednesday came as the Supreme Court heard over an hour of arguments concerning a controversial Louisiana abortion access law that critics say will leave just one doctor in the state to perform the procedure.
Key justices indicated that they could be poised to uphold the law that is similar to a Texas law the Court struck down just four years ago. Roberts and Kavanaugh both asked questions suggesting that the Louisiana law that requires doctors to have admitting privileges in local hospitals could serve a valid purpose.
Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said criticism of the New York Democrat’s comments are a “deliberate misinterpretation.”
“Women’s health care rights are at stake and Americans from every corner of the country are in anguish about what the court might do to them,” Goodman said in a statement.
He went on to falsely say, “Sen. Schumer’s comments were a reference to the political price Senate Republicans will pay for putting these justices on the court.”
During his speech on the plaza Wednesday, Schumer encouraged the crowd to boo Kavanaugh and Gorsuch and then – moments later, while making his threatening comment – pointed at the Supreme Court building while saying their names.
Goodman added Schumer’s statement was also “a warning that the justices will unleash a major grassroots movement on the issue of reproductive rights against the decision.”
“For Justice Roberts to follow the right wing’s deliberate misinterpretation of what Sen. Schumer said, while remaining silent when President Trump attacked Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg last week, shows Justice Roberts does not just call balls and strikes.”
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who is a former law clerk to Roberts, announced he was going to introduce a motion to censure Schumer. In a tweet, Hawley said: “Now @chuckschumer is threatening Supreme Court Justices personally, to the point of implying their physical safety is endangered. Disgusting, shameful and frankly, WEAK.”
Last week, Trump went after Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, saying they should recuse themselves from cases involving the President. Sotomayor had said the court’s conservative majority appeared to be siding with the government too often of late when it let Trump administration rules take effect.
In his Twitter post, Trump said: “Trying to ‘shame’ some into voting her way? She never criticized Justice Ginsberg when she called me a ‘faker’. Both should recuse themselves..’ …on all Trump, or Trump related, matters! While ‘elections have consequences’, I only ask for fairness, especially when it comes to decisions made by the United States Supreme Court!”
Trump slammed Schumer for his comments on Wednesday.
“This is a direct & dangerous threat to the U.S. Supreme Court by Schumer,” Trump said in a tweet. “If a Republican did this, he or she would be arrested, or impeached. Serious action MUST be taken NOW!”
Roberts’ statement Wednesday followed conservative condemnation of Schumer’s remarks.
“What price will they pay?” Carrie Severino, who runs a group that supports Trump’s nominees, tweeted. “Money? Physical abuse? Threats on their lives? More smear campaigns? If anything happens to Justices Gorsuch or Kavanaugh, we should assume it’s @SenSchumer’s mafia at work: ‘Who will rid me of these meddlesome justices?’”
Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger called Schumer “out of line.”
“Any statements that can be understood to threaten judges personally are completely out of line. Equally offensive are statements that can appear to be designed to intimidate judges in deciding questions of the law,” Terwilliger said. “We have to be better than that in a civil society.”
The rare statement from the chief comes after he has repeatedly stressed civility and has tried to keep his branch of government away from the dysfunction of the other branches.
Back in 2018, after Trump had criticized lower court judges, Roberts released another statement saying, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
This story has been updated to include more of Schumer’s comments and his remarks on the Senate floor Thursday.
CNN’s Abigail Clukey contributed to this report.