WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump asked his Twitter followers: "Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn't like me?"
A definitive answer might be difficult without doses of truth serum. But it should be clear by now that at least five of the nine justices have trust problems with the president and his administration.
Trump on Friday went from lambasting the "horrible & politically charged" Supreme Court setback he suffered the day before to labeling it a no-big-deal "request" for "enhanced papers." His goal remains dismantling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
But what was unmistakable was that the president who has no patience for legal niceties has run into a Supreme Court that is all about them. For the second straight year, Chief Justice John Roberts has shown who gets the last word.
Advocates and critics alike note the similarities in the DACA decision and last term's ruling that stopped the administration from adding a citizenship question to the census.
Both said the judiciary had the obligation to make sure the executive abided by the law in making important changes. Both were written by Roberts and joined by the court's liberal justices. Both found Trump officials deficient.
In his DACA decision, Roberts quoted the famous words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes a century ago: "Men must turn square corners when they deal with the government." Then Roberts added Justice Hugo Black's more contemporary addendum: "The government should turn square corners in dealing with the people."
Roberts' cool, detached and technical opinion said the Trump administration's haste to undo the program implemented eight years ago by the Obama administration got the better of the Department of Homeland Security's obligation to weigh its impact on the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who had identified themselves, or their families, or their 200,000 U.S. citizen children on their contributions to the country's economy and tax base.
"That failure was arbitrary and capricious in violation" of the Administrative Procedures Act, Roberts wrote.
Trump's reaction was expected. But Roberts drew withering fire from his conservative colleagues on the court, and his (former?) conservative allies. They described his opinion as niggling at best and, at worst, disingenuous.
"Today's decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by two other conservative justices.
He said the opinion's "timidity forsakes the court's duty to apply the law according to neutral principles, and the ripple effects of the majority's error will be felt throughout our system of self-government."
Thomas would have found that DACA was "unlawful from its inception."
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ignored the other four justices in the majority and more or less accused Roberts of betraying his oath of impartiality.
"Sadly, over recent years, more and more Chief Justice Roberts has been playing games with the court to achieve the policy outcomes he desires," Cruz said, adding, "Chief Justice Roberts knows exactly what he is doing."