The rule of law is often touted as a cornerstone of democratic society. The United States regards equal justice under the law as a core value. Founding Father John Adams articulated this principle when he declared that we are “a government of laws, not of men.” None of this, of course, presumes that there is a tyranny of legal rhetoric. That’s why we have courts to adjudicate the meaning and scope of the statutes that govern us.
Respect for the law is generally observed in a civil society. That doesn’t mean unquestioning agreement or forgoing the right to dissent. But it does mean appreciating the role of an independent judiciary. That’s a concept that Donald Trump has repeatedly trashed.
In a petty and insolent tweet Saturday morning, Trump demonstrated once again his contempt for the judiciary and for any form of disagreement with his autocratic authority. He was responding to a ruling by a Washington state judge that stayed his executive order barring people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. The order even included legal residents and those with valid visas and green cards. He tweeted:
The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 4, 2017
For the record, Judge James Robart was appointed to the federal bench by George W. Bush in 2004. Consequently, Trump could not lash out reflexively at the “liberal” courts. But that didn’t stop him from demeaning the Judge Robart, and by extension the entire judicial system.
By labeling Robart a “so-called judge,” Trump is implicitly denying that he isn’t an actual judge. By some twisted illogic he is demoting Robart to some other status. Perhaps Trump thinks he’s a “fake” judge, or an “alternative” judge. Either way, the effect is to undermine his legitimacy and that of his ruling.
Furthermore, Trump’s assertion that the decision “takes law-enforcement away from our country” makes no sense whatsoever. The judge’s ruling is, by definition, a component of law enforcement. And how does a decision by a U.S. federal court take anything away from “our country”? In what jurisdiction would Trump place this authority?
What’s more, Trump’s assertion that the ruling is “ridiculous” defies reason. Which may be why he didn’t even bother to supply one. However, four other courts agree with Robart’s decision. Last week courts in New York, Virgina, Washington, and Massachusetts issued similar judgments. That portends trouble for any hope by the White House for overturning the stay or prevailing overall.
Trump has previously expressed his disdain for the law when battling a suit over his fraudulent Trump University. In that case a judge who was born in Indiana, but whose parents were from Mexico, was accused of being biased and unfit to preside due to his heritage. That was just another example of Trump diminishing the role of the judiciary for irrelevant reasons. Despite swearing never to settle, he eventually did just that. The plaintiffs won a massive $25 million in compensatory damages.
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The problem with Trump’s tweet cannot be overstated. It is common in totalitarian regimes for the government to assert dominance over its institutions. That applies to the legislature, the media, the military, and the judiciary. Trump’s comment reflects his view that the courts are, or should be, subservient to his will. It’s a view that reinforces concerns about his aspirations to dictatorship.
The judiciary is one of the last lines of defense to prevent a descent into tyranny. Hopefully they will stand strong against Trump and for the principles enshrined in the Constitution. And maybe the Democrats in the Senate will have the guts to block the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court seat that they stole. At the very least they should ask him whether he thinks Robart is a so-called judge.