Newt Gingrich and His 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' Constitution

The candidate is selling a wrongheaded plan for legislators to bully the judiciary

newt face the nation.png "[T]he surest curb on judicial activism, for those who fear it, is executive and legislative activism in defense of constitutional liberties. The courts possess only so much power as the other branches relinquish."
                                                                           -U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson, 1979

The closer Newt Gingrich gets to the Republican nomination for president, the more unhinged become his attacks on the independence of the federal judiciary. In early October, when Gingrich was nowhere in the polls, he ginned up a patently unconstitutional argument for subpoenaing judges to come before Congress to justify and explain what Gingrich considers their "radical" decisions. "The spectacle would be like a dog walking on its hind legs," said Bruce Fein, the respected conservative attorney and former Reagan official, when asked about Gingrich's plan. "You are surprised not that it is done ineptly, but that it is attempted at all."

Now, leading most polls, but evidently still needing his own radical pitch, Gingrich has doubled down on his crackpottery. On Sunday morning, he told Bob Schieffer of CBS News' Face The Nation that the Capitol police, or federal marshals, could and should come and arrest those judges if they refuse to respond in person to a subpoena seeking to publicly shame them for making unpopular decisions. He also delivered this shuddering version of the Constitution, an unfamiliar Rock-Paper-Scissors version, in which the promise of separation of powers is akin to a playground game:

Here's the key -- it's always two out of three. If the president and the congress say the court is wrong, in the end the court would lose. If the congress and the court say the president is wrong, in the end the president would lose. And if the president and the court agreed, the congress loses. The founding fathers designed the constitution very specifically in a Montesquieu spirit of the laws to have a balance of power not to have a  dictatorship by any one of the three branches.

Poof, just like that, the leading candidate's "key" to nowhere. What Gingrich really is saying, under the guise of blasting "elitist" judges, is that the Bill of Rights would no longer be used to protect individual rights because the judges who help ensure those (often unpopular) rights can be outvoted by the White House and the Congress. In President Gingrich's world, evidently, the Supreme Court would not have the final say on the law. The majority, as represented by the popularly elected branches, would have the ultimate vote. Not in every case, Gingrich says, just in some. Does that reassure you the way he meant it to?

Here's the Face The Nation video from this morning in which Gingrich says "... there's no reason the American people need to tolerate a federal judge who who is that out of sync with an entire culture...."

There are two possibilities for this level of jeremiad. Either Gingrich actually believes this nonsense, in which case he would be a constitutionally dangerous president, or he doesn't, in which case he's committing constitutional heresy just to win a few primary votes. Either way, it is conduct unbecoming a president. Close your eyes for a second and imagine if a Democratic candidate for the White House suggested that the judiciary be neutered by the White House and Congress; if a "liberal" running for president suggested that individual liberties and minority rights would hereafter be defined by Washington. Wouldn't Gingrich be first in line with his pitchfork and torch?

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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