Chief Justice John Roberts castigated Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday after the lawmaker harshly criticized two of the Supreme Court’s conservative members as they consider how to rule on a restrictive abortion law from Louisiana.
The rare rebuke came just hours after Schumer appeared at a rally outside the court hosted by the Center for Reproductive Rights, during which he pledged that Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — both appointed by President Donald Trump — would “pay the price” if they voted to uphold the restrictive law.
That sentiment was too much for Roberts, who rarely makes public comments on political matters or ongoing cases.
“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,” Roberts said in a statement. “All Members of the Court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.”
The Louisiana case is the Supreme Court’s first major abortion rights case since both Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were appointed by Trump. The state passed a law in 2014 that mandates doctors at abortion clinics have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a requirement that abortion rights advocates say creates an undue burden that could force two of the state’s three clinics to close.
Both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are deeply conservative and have supported abortion restrictions in the past. The case could come down to the opinions of Roberts and Kavanaugh, who both asked questions at oral argument about similarities to a Texas law that the court struck down in 2016.
On Wednesday afternoon, Schumer accused Republicans of “waging a war on women” before he issued his warning:
“I want to tell you, Gorsuch; I want to tell you, Kavanaugh: You have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price,” Schumer said. “You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”
Schumer’s office rejected assertions that the comments were meant to incite any violence, saying they were “a reference to the political price Senate Republicans will pay for putting these justices on the court, and a warning that the justices will unleash a major grassroots movement on the issue of reproductive rights against the decision.”
But conservative lawmakers were angered nonetheless, including House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who called Schumer “unhinged.” Trump weighed in himself later Wednesday, calling Schumer’s remarks a “direct & dangerous” threat to the Supreme Court.
“If a Republican did this, he or she would be arrested, or impeached,” the president wrote. “Serious action MUST be taken NOW!”
Others noted, however, that Roberts did not come to the defense of his liberal colleagues after Trump targeted Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month, saying the pair should “recuse themselves” from cases involving him or his administration.
Schumer’s office pointed out that difference later on Wednesday.
“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,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Schumer.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly described Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as the Senate majority leader.