George Will on Newt Gingrich

I was thinking of writing a post on Newt Gingrich’s ill-advised attack on the judiciary. However, most of what I would have wanted to say is covered in this George Will column:

When discussing his amazingness, Newt Gingrich sometimes exaggerates somewhat, as when…. he said, “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz”…… What primarily stands between us and misrule, however, is the Constitution, buttressed by an independent judiciary.

But Gingrich’s hunger for distinction has surely been slaked by his full-throated attack on such a judiciary. He is the first presidential candidate to propose a thorough assault on the rule of law. That is the meaning of his vow to break courts to the saddle of politicians, particularly to members of Congress, who rarely even read the laws they pass.

Gingrich’s most lurid evidence that courts are “grotesquely dictatorial” is a Texas judge’s aggressive decision concerning religious observances at high school functions, a decision a higher court promptly (and dictatorially?) overturned….

So, Gingrich is happy? Not exactly. He warns that calling the Supreme Court supreme amounts to embracing “oligarchy.”

He says that the Founders considered the judiciary the “weakest” branch. Not exactly. Alexander Hamilton called the judiciary the “least dangerous” branch (Federalist 78) because, since it wields neither the sword nor the purse, its power resides solely in persuasive “judgment.” That, however, is not weakness but strength based on the public’s respect for public reasoning. Gingrich yearns to shatter that respect and trump such reasoning with raw political power, in the name of majoritarianism.

Judicial deference to majorities can, however, be a dereliction of the judicial duty to oppose actions irreconcilable with constitutional limits on what majorities may do. Gingrich’s campaign against courts repudiates contemporary conservatism’s core commitment to limited government….

To teach courts the virtue of modesty, President Gingrich would attempt to abolish some courts and impeach judges whose decisions annoy him — decisions he says he might ignore while urging Congress to do likewise. He favors compelling judges to appear before Congress to justify decisions “out of sync” with majorities, and he would sic police or marshals on judges who resist congressional coercion. Never mind that judges always explain themselves in written opinions, concurrences and dissents….

[Gingrich] disdains the central conservative virtue, prudence, and exemplifies progressivism’s defining attribute — impatience with impediments to the political branches’ wielding of untrammeled power. He exalts the will of the majority of the moment, at least as he, tribune of the vox populi, interprets it.

I would add that Gingrich conveniently ignores the fact that there are already many constraints on judicial power. Judges are nominated by presidents and confirmed by the Senate, which makes it difficult to push through nominees who deviate greatly from the political mainstream. Once appointed, they cannot easily enforce decisions in the face of strong opposition from public opinion and/or the other branches of government. Congress can impose additional restraints by deciding which courts have jurisdiction over what issues.

Historically, federal courts have erred at least as much by failing to strike down unconstitutional laws and policies as by overruling laws that they should have upheld. Many of the most notorious Supreme Court decisions – Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu, Buck v. Bell, Kelo v. City of New London (which, as Will notes, Gingrich has harshly criticized), fall into the former category.