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News Brief: Roberts Calls Out Trump, Border Agent Trial, War In Yemen


For a Supreme Court justice to publicly call out a president - well, it's just not done. And for the president to then rebuke him right back - I mean, where are we at right now?


Well, apparently, those things are just done now. Here's the backdrop. President Trump has routinely said judges are biased whenever they rule against him, often based on who appointed them. And here's the immediate prelude to Justice Roberts' remarks. A judge ruled against the president's asylum policy. The president then said the judge must be biased. Chief Justice Roberts then released a statement to the Associated Press - quote, "we do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have," he said, "is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them." For the record, Roberts was appointed by George W. Bush.

MARTIN: All right. So we are joined this morning by Amy Howe. She's a reporter who covers the Supreme Court. Her blog is Howe On The Court. Amy, thanks for being here. Happy Thanksgiving.

AMY HOWE: Good morning, Rachel. Happy Thanksgiving.

MARTIN: So it's not done, right? It is unusual for a Supreme Court justice to publicly call out a sitting president like this.

HOWE: It is unusual. It is not entirely unprecedented. You may remember back in 2010 when President Barack Obama criticized the Supreme Court during his State of the Union address, and Justice Samuel Alito was in the front row, and he famously shook his head and mouthed the words not true. And then later on the chief justice was asked about it during an appearance in Alabama, and he said that the criticism was very troubling. But somehow this feels different. You know, that was criticism of the Supreme Court. Here, Roberts was responding to the president's criticism of a trial judge out in California. It was very pointed. It was very direct. And it was also unusual - you know, it's a pretty conservative Supreme Court justice criticizing a Republican president. Still, it's quite unusual, and you could really sort of read the frustration between the lines in the Roberts statement.

MARTIN: And, I mean, it was unusual that - I mean, Justice Roberts wasn't giving remarks. He wasn't giving a speech. There was intention, right? He heard what the president said and he went to The AP and released a statement.

HOWE: I think that The AP had asked him about it, so I think there was a scenario in which he could have not responded and yet he did respond, and so I think that there's something to that as well.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the president's criticism. I mean, we should just say out loud here this president, who has said that he can't let criticism go unanswered, he responded then to Chief Justice Roberts. He said, sorry, Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do indeed have Obama judges, and they have a much different point of view than the people who are charged with the safety of our country. Is - has our judiciary become politicized, Amy?

HOWE: That is what Roberts is so concerned about is this perception. I mean, I think we often - people often describe judges and Supreme Court justices in terms of the president who appointed them. We use it as a shorthand for their ideological leanings. You say somebody's an Obama appointee or a Clinton appointee. But - and it's true that an Obama appointee or a Clinton appointee's more likely to be liberal but - even if you're generalizing. But Trump here I think was saying not simply that it was an Obama judge that's biased or illegitimate. And so I think that the idea that the judiciary is politicized really is taking it too far I think as Roberts says. They may have very different views on the law, but they're not politicized.

MARTIN: Amy Howe of the blog Howe On The Court. Amy, thanks so much for taking the time on this holiday. We appreciate it.

HOWE: Thanks for inviting me. Take care.


MARTIN: A Border Patrol officer was charged with fatally shooting a Mexican teenager over the U.S. border, and he has now been found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

INSKEEP: Yes. More than six years ago in 2012 when Agent Lonnie Swartz fired 16 rounds through a border fence into Mexico, 10 bullets were found in the body of 16-year-old Jose Elena Rodriguez in his back and his head. The agent's defense team argued that the boy was throwing rocks and that the agent feared for his life. The jury, by the way, is the latest to acquit the agent on various charges.

MARTIN: We're joined now by Ana Adlerstein. She is with our member station KJZZ, and she's been covering this trial. Ana, thanks for being here.

ANA ADLERSTEIN, BYLINE: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: You've been in the courtroom, I understand, for much of these proceedings.

ADLERSTEIN: I have been.

MARTIN: What stood out to you?

ADLERSTEIN: Well, the first thing that stood out to me is that the prosecution never denied the defense's allegation that Jose Antonio was throwing rocks even though James Tomsheck, who was head of the internal affairs at Customs and Border Protection when Jose Antonio was killed, he saw a video that showed Jose Antonio clearly not throwing rocks when he was shot. And this video wasn't presented in court. So when Trump is speaking about using lethal force against rock throwers, I think about Jose Antonio and the others killed for alleged rockings. And I'm wondering, like, who is to believe when there are claims that rocks are being thrown? All of this speaks to what Tomsheck complained about while he was in the agency - a point that he didn't get a chance to testify to.

JAMES TOMSHECK: I could have spoke directly to what occurred in CBP headquarters at the time, and that would have been information I possessed regarding efforts to cover up what had actually occurred.

ADLERSTEIN: Being what he and many believed to have been egregious use of lethal force.

MARTIN: So this was really controversial. What kind of reaction was there after the verdict was read?

ADLERSTEIN: Yeah. Well, I mean, first off, just shock and sadness - I mean, especially on the part of the family. They actually really thought they had a chance at getting a guilty verdict. And that's actually why this made it to trial in the first place. I mean of over a hundred killings associated with Border Patrol in the past 15 years, this one is just the second to make it to criminal court. There have not been any convictions for killing when a Border Patrol officer is on duty. So, yeah, people were upset, and they protested. They took to the streets. Someone was arrested.

MARTIN: What happens now? I mean, the family has said that they're going to continue to fight. So is there going to be a civil case?

ADLERSTEIN: Yeah, yeah, there is a civil case pending, and it's on hold until the Supreme Court decides whether the family has a right to sue because, you know, Jose Antonio, he was killed in Mexico. The government who is arguing against the family in the civil case, and in two other civil cases like it, they've actually drawn comparisons to holding drone strike deaths accountable if piloted from the U.S. So there are some pretty far-reaching implications here. But, yeah, in terms of what comes next, I spoke with one community organizer who had been at the protests in Baltimore after the police officer involved in the death of Freddie Gray was acquitted in 2016. And yeah, he said that this movement is smaller, but he sees it growing. And, you know, there's been press and advocates are getting Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez's name and story out. And they're working to educate the public. I mean, Border Patrol is the biggest police force in the country, and they operate in remote terrain where often no one sees what happens.

MARTIN: Right. Ana Adlerstein - a reporter with our member station KJZZ who's been covering this trial from the beginning. Ana, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

ADLERSTEIN: Thank you for having me.


MARTIN: All right. As President Trump's administration defends Saudi Arabia's crown prince over his alleged role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, there is renewed attention on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.

INSKEEP: The U.S. provides intelligence for the Saudi-led bombing campaign and also supplies weapons to the Saudi military. Now, a report from the international aid group Save the Children says more than 85,000 children in Yemen may have died of hunger and disease since Saudi Arabia first intervened a few years ago in Yemen's civil war.

MARTIN: NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been reporting on the war in Yemen for a long time. She joins us now from her base in Beirut, Lebanon. Hey, Ruth.


MARTIN: I mean, that number, you know, it's hard to quantify the suffering in Yemen, but 85,000 children according to Save the Children in Yemen could have died of starvation. It's hard to absorb that.

SHERLOCK: It is. You know, I think it's - I was thinking about this. It's just so hard for most of us to imagine, I think. It's now become a place where there's families that literally cannot find or afford to buy food. So they're sitting there watching their children die before their eyes. It's the biggest food security crisis in the world. And, you know, another terrifying statistic comes from the U.N. where they say 400,000 children are likely to be acutely malnourished by the end of this year. Even aid workers themselves are now struggling. We reached Herir Altachi (ph). She's a volunteer with a local charity who tries to feed vulnerable families.

HERIR ALTACHI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: So she says that her husband was killed in the war, hit by a stray bullet when he tried to retrieve some items from the house that was destroyed in an airstrike. And now Altachi's trying to support her four children alone, and so she's working to help others, but she herself is now a recipient of aid because food is just so expensive.

MARTIN: Wow. At least some aid is getting through, right? I mean, hasn't that been part of the problem is that the conflict - despite calls for a cease-fire by the Trump administration, the conflict is raging on and so food aid can't get in.

SHERLOCK: That's exactly right. So the - Saudi Arabia, which is actually backed by the U.S., has blockaded a lot of Yemen's ports and airports, and the fighting has limited distribution. Houthi rebels on the other side have planted mines, which makes it hard for the food supplies to get around. So this war is now actually raging around the city of Hodeidah, which has the country's most important port. And just this week, it's intensified there. Aid groups are saying it would be disastrous if that port, that lifeline, were cut off.

MARTIN: So the U.N. is going to try for peace talks again and wants all players at the table. But tell me if I'm wrong, but didn't they try this before, and the Houthis didn't show up.

SHERLOCK: They did. So now they say that this time they've got an agreement for both sides to show up, hopefully - perhaps as soon as next month. But as you say, there's so many problems, so many stumbling blocks. And the people I've spoken to on the ground are not hopeful. But, you know, at least they have to keep trying.

MARTIN: We should just say the Houthis are the group - the rebel group - that overthrew the government there years ago. NPR's Ruth Sherlock for us this morning. Thank you so much, Ruth. We appreciate it.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAMPIQUE'S "EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.