Ruth Bader Ginsburg now has expressed regret over her “ill-advised” comments ripping into Donald Trump. Still, by speaking out in this totally inappropriate way, she has demonstrated that the whole idea of judges or even justices being apolitical is a crock. When Chief Justice John Roberts was going through his Senate nomination, he managed to get away with calling himself merely an “umpire.” Another crock.
He’s been better than most, actually, ruling, on occasion, against the wishes of the Republicans who put him in. They expected him to be partisan, but on a few matters — like health care, for instance — he has left the conservatives bitterly disappointed. As a general rule, the GOP nominees predictably hew to the right, the Democratic ones to the left. Until his death, Antonin Scalia was in a reactionary class of his own. Of course, there’s Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy who marches to his own drummer, reveling in the attention he gets as the SCOTUS unpredictable “swing vote.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg left no doubt about how she swings. There she was, telling The New York Times, “I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president” and jokingly suggesting Trump’s election would cause her to move to New Zealand. To leave no doubt, she went on CNN to call Trump “a faker.” At first, the Trumpster responded in his usual obnoxious way, saying of the 90-year-old Ginsburg, “Her mind is shot.” Then he scaled back to calling her comments “highly inappropriate,” which they were.
It’s not that she’s alone in her opinion about Trump; it’s just that she had no business saying so in public. She is a Supreme Court Justice, and there are only nine — actually only eight right now, because after Scalia up and died, the politicians were unable to even try to shake off their paralysis to fully staff the high bench. Current polls show that Trump could very possibly be the next president. If so, he’d have to interact with the Supremes and perhaps replace several justices. The right-wingers desperately want one of them to be Ginsburg, they hate her rulings so much. Now she’s given them another reason to despise her. He was on solid ground when he complained.
Of course, he’s not exactly a paragon of propriety when it comes to the courts, offending millions when he insisted that the lower-court federal judge hearing the Trump University case couldn’t possibly be fair to him because the judge’s parents had come here from Mexico.
But we’ve gotten used to Donald Trump being outspoken, to put it mildly. The Supremes are supposed to write legal opinions, not speak personal ones, certainly not about politics. There’s a myth about the Supreme Court being an unbiased haven. “Equal Justice Under The Law” is even carved into the building’s entrance. The image is important, even if it’s phony — Ruth Bader Ginsburg certainly has shown that it is.
Her fans call her “Notorious RBG” like she’s a rock star. She’s not. What’s frustrating about all this is the refusal of the justices to open up their proceedings to cameras and to be televised. They contend that the American people don’t have the capacity to understand what’s happening on their TV screens, and that the reporters would use only the most sensational sound bites, without the proper legal context.
That’s the problem with democracy: The people get to decide not only their opinions, but whether they want to be ignoramuses when they do. But not when it comes the highest court in the land. Notorious RBG, aka Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wanted to have it both ways. She’d tell us what she thinks, but we can’t watch her work. Now she’s seen the error of her ways. Maybe she’ll change her mind about cameras in the court.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.