BALTIMORE – In this little business of New York Senator Chuck Schumer bad-mouthing members of the U.S. Supreme Court the other day in Washington, I agreed with everything he said but wish like hell he’d have kept his mouth shut.
The Democratic leader attacked two of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, as the court was hearing arguments in an abortion case.
For this, Schumer drew the immediate public wrath – rarely displayed – of Chief Justice John Roberts.
At a street rally outside the Supreme Court, Schumer aimed his remarks at the justices, saying, if they undermined Roe v. Wade and made abortions illegal again, “You will not know what hit you.”
Justice Roberts’ immediate response: “Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous. All members of the court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.”
Roberts is absolutely right. I saw Schumer’s remarks on TV, and I thought he was intemperate and unnecessarily antagonistic with his language.
But, as they say in court, let’s stipulate.
Schumer’s remarks were unacceptable because he reduced himself to the language of a street thug – or, to put it another way, to the language employed routinely by Donald Trump, going back to his campaign days when Trump would urge crowds to take a punch at anybody who dared disagree with him.
But you don’t have to go back that far. Trump has accused such people as Rep. Adam Schiff, and top FBI officials such as James Comey and Andrew McCabe, and Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, of “treason.”
The punishment for treason is death.
Schumer can speak better than this. He knows, as well as anyone, how badly our political language and tone have been coarsened in the last three years.
Had he said, “If you weaken any woman’s right to an abortion, then you will pay a political price,” he’d have been fine. One additional word, “political,” and he’s added diplomacy to a threat.
One of the underlying issues of the 2016 presidential campaign was the balance of the Supreme Court – and, boy, did that issue reverberate.
And it still does.
We’ve got some aging, ailing justices who don’t figure to continue hearing cases for four more years, so the next occupant of the White House will have the same kind of opportunities for filling judgeships – and not just Supreme Court seats – as Trump has had.
But Trump has had unfair help with his judicial appointments – and that’s got to be part of the bile that’s stuck in Chuck Schumer’s throat (and so many other people’s) when he spoke the other day.
Or have we forgotten the disgraceful Mitch McConnell blocking Barack Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, from getting even a congressional hearing – on the absurd grounds that it was the final year of Obama’s term. That’s what opened the door for Trump’s appointment of Justice Gorsuch.
And have we forgotten the sexual allegations against Justice Kavanaugh, and the painful hearings and the tortured voting on his nomination?
So Schumer’s unfortunate remarks carried emotional baggage left over from previous Supreme Court battles.
But look at what happened. Unable to take the high road (in Trump’s case, he’d need a Rand-McNally road map), the president accused Schumer of making “a direct & dangerous threat to the U.S. Supreme Court,” and that if a Republican had made it “he or she would be arrested, or impeached.”
Leaving aside Trump’s personal insights into the business of impeachment, this president is no stranger to criticizing the high court himself. Just the other day, he took issue with Justices Ruth Ginsburg and Sotomayor.
“Both should recuse themselves on all Trump, or Trump related, matters!” he said on Twitter.
The justices’ “offenses” were too benign to bother defending here. It’s just another case of Trump wishing the banishment of anyone who dares disagree with him.
You want a few examples? He called Justice Roberts an “absolute disaster” because of a ruling during the 2016 campaign. He accused another federal judge of bias because of his family’s Mexican heritage.
And when he called a judge who ruled against his administration’s asylum policy “an Obama judge,” it roused Justice Roberts to respond.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right for those appearing before them.”
Justice Roberts was just responding to a routine Trump punch below the belt.
Chuck Schumer witnessed enough of those over the last three years. If this president wants to talk like a street thug, nobody can stop him. But a U.S. senator ought to know better.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.