Newt Gingrich’s assault on ‘activist judges’ draws criticism, even from right

Never one to be accused of timidity, Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich is turning up the volume of his ongoing assault on “activist judges” so high that even conservatives say he is going too far.

In a half-hour phone call with reporters Saturday, Gingrich said that, as president, he would abolish whole courts to be rid of judges whose decisions he feels are out of step with the country.

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A look at how the 2012 Republican candidates for president differ on key issues.

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Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich explained to Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" his views of the U.S. judicial system. The Republican presidential candidate said that he would send U.S. Marshals to bring judges before Congress if the president disagrees with the court's ruling. (Dec. 18)

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich explained to Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation" his views of the U.S. judicial system. The Republican presidential candidate said that he would send U.S. Marshals to bring judges before Congress if the president disagrees with the court's ruling. (Dec. 18)

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“Are we forced for a lifetime to keep someone on the bench who is so radically anti-American that they are a threat to the fabric of the country?” Gingrich asked. “What kind of judge says you’ll go to jail if the word ‘invocation’ is used? If this isn’t a speech dictatorship, I’d like you to show me what one looks like.”

The former House speaker Sunday showed no sign of letting up on his assault on such judges. During an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Gingrich suggested the president could send federal law enforcement authorities to arrest judges who make controversial rulings in order to compel them to justify their decisions before congressional hearings.

When host Bob Schieffer asked how he would force federal judges to comply with congressional subpoenas, Gingrich said he would send the U.S. Capitol Police or U.S. Marshals to arrest the judges and force them to testify.

In campaign speeches, he likes to criticize by name a federal judge in Texas who blocked prayer in a public school. On Thursday in Sioux City, Iowa, at the most recent presidential debate, he called for judges to be compelled to explain their decisions before Congress.

Gingrich has been emboldened by his reception on the campaign trial, where conservative voters have cheered his view that judges who have ruled in favor of gay marriage or against prayer in school are “activists” who should be thrown out. In particular, Gingrich has criticized the US. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, on the West Coast, as well as U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of Texas, who ruled this year that a public school district in Texas could not, among other things, use the words “prayer,” “amen,” “invocation” or “benediction” during a graduation ceremony.

Judicial experts, including conservatives, are questioning the constitutionality of Gingrich’s stance. The Constitution specifically grants federal judges life terms with good behavior, many of Gingrich’s critics note, and provides only for impeachment as the way to remove bad judges. To do so by other means, they say, is an encroachment on judicial independence and an affront to the separation of powers doctrine that underlies the entire document.

“Overall, he’s racing towards a cliff,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the nonpartisan Justice at Stake campaign, which advocates for an independent judiciary. “It may be expedient to appeal to specific voters in primaries or caucuses, but it’s a constitutional disaster. Americans want courts that can uphold their rights and not be accountable to politicians. When you get to the point where you’re talking about impeaching judges over decisions or abolishing courts or calling them before Congress, it’s getting very far away from the American political mainstream.”

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