In the most basic of American government classes, students are taught about the separation of powers and the role of an independent judiciary. Article III of the US Constitution establishes the federal courts, and federal judges hold a lifetime appointment. Federal judges can retire, resign or be impeached and removed by Congress. One main justification for an independent judiciary was to keep its role outside the control of the legislative and executive branches. The courts were not supposed to be as influenced by popular opinion as elected officials are.
While concepts about the judicial branch are covered in introductory civics and government, Professor Gingrich seems to have missed this lesson.
This past weekend Newt Gingrich stepped up his attack on the judiciary. During a press call with reporters, Gingrich said that he would defy Supreme Court decisions that he did not agree with. More pointedly, he took aim at “elitist judges” and suggested that the judiciary had become “grotesquely dictatorial.” And he even said that certain courts could be abolished.
Then on Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation, Gingrich continued with his judicial rant saying that he would force judges to defend unpopular decisions before Congress and would even send the Capitol Police to arrest judges.
Gingrich took aim at rulings that have preserved the separation of church and state. On Face the Nation, he said, “We’ve had rulings that outlawed school prayer, we’ve had rulings that outlawed the cross, we’ve had rulings that outlawed the Ten Commandments. We’ve had a steady secular drive to radicalize this country away from all of its core beliefs.”
One rationale for a separation of church and state is to allow the freedom of religion to flourish. Still, Gingrich’s remarks plainly pander to the religious right, a group whose support he seeks to solidify since his main rival Romney will likely face difficulty with evangelicals because of his Mormon faith.
But do these statements by Gingrich attacking the judiciary also highlight his perceived lack of discipline? A few weeks ago, he generated a buzz when he said that child labor laws were “truly stupid.” Gingrich has a reputation as a bomb thrower and has been known for having a “penchant for overstatement,” but these continual over-the-top statements could turn voters off and cost him when the first round of primaries begins in the upcoming weeks.
The thought of hauling federal judges in front of Congress in the custody of the Capitol police or US Marshals is probably not appealing to folks on either side of the political spectrum. We have judges of various ideologies serving throughout the country. A president who might be more inclined to appoint “activist” judges could make similar arguments as Gingrich about arresting strict constructionists on the bench. Yet, comments from Gingrich about arresting judges who are supposed to issue rulings that may not be popular with the masses are largely divisive. They also may remind voters who are old enough to remember when Gingrich presided over the House as Speaker during the impeachment of President Clinton, a time that was marked by a similar political polarization that the country is experiencing now. The challenge for Gingrich in the few weeks before the Iowa caucuses will be to avoid making controversial remarks that make him out to be a bully.