It was always going to be interesting, this first and pivotal Supreme Court nomination of President Donald Trump. On the campaign trail, Trump — who seemed to have little interest in the finer points of government, including the court system — kept pandering to evangelical voters by talking about the need for a conservative high court justice to replace Antonin Scalia. Trump let it be known he would appoint an anti-abortion rights judge in sharp contrast to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who pledged to protect abortion rights.
But when Trump picked Coloradan Neil Gorsuch, a federal appeals judge, for the spot, some would-be critics were surprised. While Gorsuch seems a solid conservative (particularly on gun rights) he does not seem a hard-liner on every issue.
Now, in conversations with individual U.S. senators — conversations Gorsuch apparently agreed could be shared with the public — the judge seems to have crossed a line Trump expects everyone to stay behind. That is, he may have not only differed with the president, he may have actually criticized him in talks with senators. Apparently, Gorsuch thinks it’s wrong that the president blasts judges who do not rule exactly as he would wish them to. There’s the judge who heard a case against Trump University last summer and was criticized by Trump, who questioned the role of the judge’s Mexican heritage in his judgment. Last week, Trump denigrated a judge who ruled against the president’s order that temporarily bans all refugees plus immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Trump called the federal jurist a “so-called judge.”
Trump is used to violating norms all day every day, such as mocking a handicapped reporter or women or saying he’d put Hillary Clinton in jail. But judges do not like it when other judges are taken to task by politicians, even ones who happen to occupy the White House. They — and for that matter all those who respect the separation of powers — believe that refraining from reckless attacks is important to both respecting individuals and the role of the judiciary, along with acknowledging the important role of the constitutional separation of powers.
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If President Trump continues to act as if this is a government of, by and for Trump, protocol, custom and courtesy be hanged, he risks becoming a national joke, at which point it will be virtually impossible for him to govern effectively.
It will now be interesting to see whether Trump can respond reasonably to reports on Gorsuch’s comments.