12.17.11

Newt Gingrich Launches Broad Attack on Nation’s Courts

Gingrich says the Supreme Court has too much power and 'anti-American' judges should be impeached. Howard Kurtz on what’s behind the ex-speaker’s unusual attack.

Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign took an unusual turn on Saturday as he challenged the long-established notion that the Supreme Court should have the final say over constitutional questions.

As a historian, he made an interesting argument. As the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, it was a rather odd detour into the world of abstract legal theory.

In a conference call with reporters, Gingrich invoked Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, Lincoln, FDR and a 1958 ruling by the Warren Court to cast doubt on whether 5-4 rulings by the nation’s highest court should have legitimacy, and whether judges with what he considers abhorrent views should be removed.

The former House speaker said he is “frankly just fed up with elitist judges imposing secularism on the country” and that the court system has “run amok.”

On one level, it seemed like Gingrich wasting a news cycle by indulging his appetite for intellectual discourse, with the Iowa caucuses less than three weeks away. But out-of-control judges and the limits of the Constitution are resonant issues among the kind of conservative activists who turn out in GOP primary contests, so Gingrich was engaged in a form of narrowcasting.

He said that judges who are “so radically anti-American that they are a threat to the fabric of the country” should be hauled before Congress and possibly impeached rather than being allowed to keep their lifetime appointments. Gingrich repeatedly invoked a ruling earlier this year by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in Texas that barred a school district from allowing public prayer or such religious words as “amen” at a high-school graduation ceremony.

Out-of-control judges and the limits of the Constitution are resonant issues among the kind of conservative activists who turn out in GOP primary contests.

Dismissing a question about whether his proposals amount to a power grab, Gingrich said the “nine appointed people” on the Supreme Court should not be “the ultimate dictators,” and that the president and Congress should jointly be able to block decisions with which they disagree. He said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote on the court, sometimes “gets up as a conservative” and sometimes “gets up as a liberal,” resulting in narrow rulings that “most people realize” are “an absurdity.”

The Founding Fathers were skeptical of the power of British judges, Gingrich said, and “the courts are forcing us into a constitutional crisis because of their arrogant overreach.”

The issue surfaced at a Fox News debate Thursday night, when anchor Megyn Kelly noted that two conservative former attorneys general have criticized Gingrich’s proposal with such words as “dangerous,” “outrageous,” and “totally irresponsible.”

The conference call was an interesting tactical move by Gingrich, who made a late decision to appear on Face the Nation on Sunday. He will appear opposite an interview with Mitt Romney on Fox News Sunday, the first appearance on a Sunday program by the former Massachusetts governor in 18 months. Unlike Gingrich, Romney has been running a press-averse campaign until this week, when he mounted a blitz that included interviews with The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico.