Donald Trump’s attack on a federal judge who ruled against him as being an ‘Obama judge’ and thus acting in a biased way resulted in an unusual rebuke from US Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts who decried adding labels to federal judges once they are on the bench, declaring that they should be presumed to be above partisan interests. To no one’s surprise, Trump did not take Robert’s comments lying down and has issued a new series of tweets against the judiciary.
It is not unreasonable to be skeptical of the claim of judicial neutrality. While judges are constrained by the law and precedents, they do have their own views on matters and these can come into play when there is some leeway in how they interpret the law and make rulings.
But the interesting thing is why Trump went after the judiciary at all. It has now become abundantly clear, and even admitted to by Trump, that his relentless attacks on the media were a deliberate plan to discredit them in the eyes of his supporters so that when they inevitably report negatively on his atrocious words and actions and the failures of his policies, his supporters will think that the news is false and the result of partisan bias. Trump is similarly seeking to preemptively discredit the judiciary as biased and partisan against him so that if and when they decide against him, he can tell his faithful base that it is all part of a conspiracy by those who dislike his efforts to make America great again.
Undermining confidence in the judiciary is a dangerous move that has unpredictable consequences. The question is what the judiciary can do in response. They are limited in their options and Roberts’s words are about as far as we are likely to see them go. But there is no limit to how far Trump wants to take this. Can we expect to see Trump at his rallies rail against judges who rule against him by name and encourage his rabid fans to boo at the mention of them and chant “lock them up!”? It would not surprise me at all.