Wednesday, July 13, 2016
This week Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew criticism for her negative public remarks about Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. In three separate forums, Justice Ginsburg made remarks about not wanting Trump to become president and saying he has a big ego. The New York Times Editorial Board chastised Justice Ginsburg for speaking out and listed the instances:
In the New York Times: “I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president,” joking that if her husband were alive, he might have said, “It’s time for us to move to New Zealand.”
In an interview with the AP: “I don’t want to think about that possibility [a Trump victory], but if it should be, then everything is up for grabs.”
And with CNN: Trump was “a faker,” who “has no consistency about him.” In that interview, with CNN, she added: “He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego.”
Not at all unexpectedly, Donald Trump responded via Twitter by questioning Justice Ginsburg’s competence and ending with a curt command - "resign!"
Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot - resign!
Commenters have noted that Supreme Court justices are not held to the Code of Conduct as are other federal judges which states that judges should refrain from political activity. Judges should not "make speeches for a political organization or candidate, or publicly endorse or oppose a candidate for public office . . . ." But Justices are subject to 28 U.S. Code § 455 which requires a judge to disqualify himself in any proceeding "where his impartiality might reasonably be questioned." Further, a judge should disqualify himself if “he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning a party . . . .”
Even Justice Ginsburg supporters have agreed that statements like this do put her in a precarious position should a replay of Bush v. Gore become necessary in this election cycle, or for any number of President Trump policy contests that are likely to come before the Court, if the volume of challenges is anything like those President Obama has faced. Further, even under a President Clinton, Justice Ginsburg's decisions may be perceived to be biased in favor of Hillary. Either way, her opinions could draw even more criticisms based on bias, with the evidence being provided by Justice Ginsburg's own words.
Others see no problem with Justice Ginsburg remarks:
Former Ginsburg law clerk Lori Alvino McGill, partner at Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz in D.C., defended the justice’s remarks.
“The Justice is human like the rest of us, and an American citizen,” McGill said. “That she uttered out loud some of her personal fears about a potential Trump administration does not cast doubt on her ability to be impartial, should a hypothetical ‘Bush v. Gore’-type case arise and come to the court.”
McGill added, “Any case that comes to the court concerning Trump v. Clinton would not be a referendum on who is the better candidate. It would present a legal question for the court to decide, and I have no doubt that Justice Ginsburg would faithfully execute her duty to decide that question without regard to whether she would give Mr. Trump her vote.”
In theory, it is possible that a judge may hold political views and still provide a judgment in accordance with the law. But, as humans, we inevitably, and probably unfortunately, instantly look for bias in controversial opinions. Lately, it doesn't even seem that a person’s opinion may be considered without an immediate allegation of bias - a personal attack upon that person’s character. This phenomenon has contributed to an increasingly polarized political environment, so much so that productive discussions become more rare every day.
Certainly it is true that judges are human too and invariably will hold personal political opinions. However the accepted norm has been that judges will refrain from stating such opinions in an overtly public way in order to maintain the appearance of impartiality. Perhaps the appearance of impartiality is just a lie we have come to accept as the norm, even though we value impartiality itself. When we hear such a pointed statement come from such a prominent Supreme Court Justice, it is something unusual and may cause us to reconsider the norm.
Would we be better off if our judges freely shared their political views? Would that be better for transparency within the judiciary or would it lead to greater distrust of the judicial system? What are the advantages or disadvantages of abandoning the long held tradition of judges refraining from entering the political arena?