Poor Judgment



Maybe you missed it if you were celebrating with family and friends last week but, during the holiday rush, President Donald Trump managed to call attention to himself in usual ways. 

Asked what he was most thankful for, he said he was most thankful for himself because of the great job he is doing in the White House. 

And he dismissed his government’s findings in the killing of U.S. based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying that he didn’t want to blame the Saudis because that would hurt American businesses. 

Trump doesn’t worry about the message he’s sending to the world about murderous dictators.

Trump even managed to drag politics into the annual presidential pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey, quipping that his judicial bogeyman, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, probably would overturn his act of mercy.

His constant complaining about “so-called” judges, linking them and their rulings to the presidents who nominated them for the bench, went too far for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. In a rare, pointed and welcome rebuke, Roberts stressed the independence and the integrity of the judiciary, making it clear that the White House and the courts are equal branches of the federal government.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.” 

Courts, of course, have been thorns in the presidential side since long before Trump took office. FDR was so frustrated with the Supreme Court that he tried to pack it with judges who would favor his policies. And Barack Obama went public with his criticism of the high court’s Citizens United ruling on campaign finance.

But Trump’s disdain for the judiciary has been a constant practically since his first day in office. He has tried to bully his policies into action with executive orders that too often overstepped the boundaries of his authority, not to mention common decency. The most outrageous examples have to do with immigration, where the separation of parents and children had no solid basis and served no purpose except to make headlines.

For his most dastardly opponent, Trump has singled out the 9th Circuit, which  covers California and other Western states. Most recently, a California district judge blocked the White House from barring migrants who cross into the United States illegally from seeking asylum.

The circuit has a tradition of being dominated by judges appointed by Democratic presidents, but it currently has six vacancies, and Trump has nominated replacements for five of those seats.

On Thanksgiving, Trump doubled down on earlier criticism and intensified an “us vs. them” mentality that degrades the concept of separation of powers that is a hallmark of American democracy. During a conference call with members of the military, Trump couldn’t resist turning what normally is a feel-good pep talk into a political diatribe.

“We get a lot of bad court decisions from the 9th Circuit, which has become a big thorn in our side,” he said. “We always lose, and then you lose again and again, and then you hopefully win at the Supreme Court, which we have done. But it’s a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border.” 

He added, “It’s a disgrace.”

There’s a disgrace involved, all right, but it’s coming from the White House, not the judiciary. That kind of incendiary language is what prompted Roberts, in response to an inquiry from The Associated Press, to go public with his critique of the president.

Roberts’ statement, of course, comes not long after politics was dragged into the bizarre spectacle of the Supreme Court confirmation process with the hearings involving the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. He won his seat on the court, but his emotional, non-judicious screed against women who accused him of sexual misconduct, as well as Democrats, led to more than a dozen formal ethics complaints being filed against him. The issue has been sent to federal appeals judges in Colorado for review.

As that process plays out, it will no doubt prompt more presidential complaints, further tarring a balance of governmental powers that has served the nation well since the founders put it into place. 

Instead of criticizing Roberts and his fellow judges, Trump should heed his words and stop degrading a co-equal branch of government. That way, he could help restore badly needed respect for Congress, for the courts and most of all, for the presidency.