Chief Justice Roberts attends Trump's State of the Union amid impeachment trial

William Rehnquist was absent from the speech to a joint session of Congress by President Bill Clinton in 1999, when his trial was underway.
Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts during President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate Chamber on Jan. 30, 2020.Senate TV via AFP - Getty Images

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts attended Tuesday night's State of the Union address by President Donald Trump to a joint session of Congress, even though he is presiding over Trump's Senate impeachment trial, which ends Wednesday.

His decision to attend, along with three other members of the Supreme Court, is at odds with Chief Justice William Rehnquist's absence from the State of the Union address by President Bill Clinton in 1999. Rehnquist was presiding over Clinton's impeachment trial at the time.

Roberts has been present at every State of the Union address since he became chief justice in fall 2005. That, too, is a departure from the practice of Rehnquist, who did not always attend.

The three other justices expected to be at Tuesday's address are Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Kagan, appointed to the court by President Barack Obama, has also attended every one of the events since she came onto the court in fall 2010. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are Trump appointees.

Roberts, Kagan, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are the same four who attended last year's State of the Union address by Trump.

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As for the other justices, Clarence Thomas rarely attends the event. Stephen Breyer was understood to be traveling and coping with the flu. Samuel Alito stopped going after 2010, when he was seen mouthing the words "not true" as Obama blasted the court for its Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and labor unions to make campaign-related contributions. Sonia Sotomayor is sometimes present and sometimes not.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has never attended a State of the Union speech when a Republican is president.