Donald Trump’s tendency to question the legitimacy of the judicial branch has gone beyond inappropriate and is now a threat to American judicial independence.
It’s OK for a president to disagree with a decision by a federal judge. It’s a time-honored tradition that was on display not too long ago when President Obama questioned the Citizens United ruling during a State of the Union address as most members of the Supreme Court watched.
Tension between the executive and judicial branches should be expected in a healthy representative democracy. But a sitting president referring to a federal judge as a “so-called judge” because he ruled against the Trump administration’s immigration executive order rips at the heart of the system established by our founders.
That was the tamest thing our new president said, or tweeted, on the subject. He took fear-mongering to new heights by claiming that “many bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country” because Judge James L. Robart put his travel ban on hold, as though Trump is unaware of the exhaustive vetting of refugees that had been going on long before his executive order.
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An American has never been killed on U.S. soil in a terrorist attack by a refugee from one of the seven nations Trump targeted. So his executive order is misguided and has caused unnecessary pain for legitimate green-card holders, children and other travelers.
Beyond that, Trump attacked the heart of our democracy by suggesting that a judge had no right to rule against his administration — this after another case in which he declared that Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t be impartial because he was Hispanic.
In neither instance was it simply a case of hyper-partisan politics, given that one of the judges is a respected conservative jurist appointed by George W. Bush and the other known for having stood up to some of the country’s most dangerous drug cartels. Robart was confirmed to his post in a 99-0 Senate vote. He and Curiel are the kinds of judges a self-proclaimed law-and-order president like Trump should love.
Instead, because they didn’t simply do his bidding, he tried to delegitimize them.
Trump tweeted, “If something happens blame him and court system.” And: “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban.”
It means our country still has sufficient checks and balances in place as a buffer against a man who acts as if he is the star of a reality TV show in which he can dictate all the action instead of president of the most influential nation in the free world.
Trump, the candidate, made tens of millions of American hearts flutter with his penchant to speak from the hip in ways previous candidates dared not do. It’s one of the reasons he won in November — even after that blunt speech caused the Republican Speaker of the House to slam Trump for “textbook racism” when Trump claimed Judge Curiel’s ethnicity was a disqualifying characteristic.
But as president, Trump must be better. He has the right to criticize any judge he likes. He shouldn’t undermine our democracy while doing so.
This editorial was originally published by the Charlotte Observer.