WASHINGTON – Presumed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s attacks on federal judges – and in particular on a judge handling the case of the now-defunct Trump University – are damaging the U.S. Constitution, an independent judiciary and the country, Vice President Joe Biden warns.
“This kind of conduct is pernicious and oppressive. One legal commentator says it smacks of authoritarianism and tyranny. I agree,” the vice president said.
Biden was aiming at Trump’s constant drumbeats against U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of San Diego. Curiel is presiding over lawsuits by ex-students of the now-dead Trump University, a vocational school where Trump lent his name, promised riches – and didn’t deliver, except to take their money. Biden says that, to him, Trump’s actions were “fraud.”
But the larger issue, he told the annual convention of the American Constitution Society – a group of progressive attorneys and law students, including pro-worker labor lawyers – is that Trump’s criticisms show he does not understand the role of judges and courts, and the need for the people of the U.S. to trust their impartiality.
“We’ve sort of crossed the line here,” Biden told the capacity crowd meeting in a downtown D.C. hotel. “The Republican presidential nominee is undermining and condemning the constitutional imperative” of a fair and impartial judiciary “that people can have faith in.”
Trust in the judiciary is important to workers and their allies, who have often had to turn to the courts against venal, vicious and law-breaking employers, including labor law-breakers.
Biden agreed, by implication. “Justice delayed is justice denied, especially to those without deeper pockets,” he said at one point.
Biden did not go quite as far as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who immediately preceded him to the ACS podium. Recalling her speech there several years ago, Warren said a trend she saw then has only gotten worse: The right wing and big business are using their influence and money – including “dark money” of unregulated corporate campaign contributions – to buy a judiciary partial to themselves and against workers and consumers.
But Biden said the Constitution’s framers inserted several provisions to protect judicial independence and public trust in judges. And famed Chief Justice John Marshall declared the Supreme Court “has the power to say what the law is.” Added Biden, again quoting Marshall: “Ours is a government of laws and not of men.”
Trump is declaiming he can’t get a fair trial, because the Indiana-born Judge Curiel is of Mexican ancestry. Curiel has, fairly, let students who lost tens of thousands of dollars at the now-dead for-profit school sue, and unsealed documents in the case, Biden noted.
“I don’t think the Framers envisioned a judge being unable to reach a fair decision because he was of a particular ethnic descent or because he was from Tennessee or Delaware or because of anything else,” the vice president added.
“It’s one thing for a private citizen to throw his weight around to try to demolish a judge. It’s another thing for a presidential candidate of a major political party to do so. It’s my view that a presidential candidate who attacks a judge for private reasons cannot be trusted to protect the independence of the judiciary.”
And as for Trump’s declaration that “Wouldn’t that be wild, as president, to come back to do a civil case?” – the university case, after the election – “How can that be interpreted as anything other than a direct threat?” Biden asked.
It leaves open the possibility that if elected, and facing a court ruling against him, from the Supreme Court on down, Trump would just plain defy it, damaging the Constitution, our federal government and citizens’ trust, Biden said.
Trump was not Biden’s only target. The vice president, a Democratic senator from Delaware for 30 years before winning his current office, said he still has Senate friends on both sides of the aisle and a reputation there as a dealmaker who can be trusted.
Having said that, he excoriated the Senate’s ruling Republicans for refusing to even give a hearing to Merrick Garland, a respected moderate chief federal appeals court judge whom President Barack Obama (D) nominated to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Biden said 17 GOP senators have told him privately that Garland should get a hearing. But party leaders adamantly refuse to hold one until a new president takes office.
With one seat vacant after conservative Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February, the court has postponed decisions – or reached 4-4 ties – on key cases, Biden said. He reminded senators they have a constitutional duty to “advise and consent” to Supreme Court nominees.
Even if senators vote “no” — and they have every right to do so, Biden said – they must vote.
The ties often leave federal law different in different states, depending on which appeals courts handle their rulings. That produces “confusion and uncertainty” for citizens, Biden said. “Disabling the (Supreme) Court by keeping a seat vacant for hundreds of days matters not just because of uncertainty, but because it fractures the country,” the vice president declared.
Unions have joined the campaign for hearings and a vote. When Obama nominated Garland on March 16, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised the judge’s “deep commitment to public service and the rule of law.” The federation has since launched an internet e-mail campaign urging senators to hold confirmation hearings and vote on Garland.
Added Trumka: “Judge Garland is a superbly qualified nominee who deserves prompt” Senate “consideration and confirmation. Working people deserve and expect no less.”
Photo: Evan Vucci/AP