In an unusual turn of events, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave an in-chambers interview with The New York Times, which was published Sunday. In an even more surprising turn, Ginsburg offered up a harsh assessment of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Many readers likely nodded, fist-pumped, and/or gave an "amen" to Ginsburg's comments, but were they really appropriate? And not just by historical standards, but by the standards Ginsburg has stood by in the past?
For those who need a refresher course in junior high civics, the three rings of the government circus are meant to provide checks and balances on each other. While the legislative branch makes the laws, the judicial branch is meant to interpret the laws so that the executive branch can carry out the laws. The idea is that the judicial branch is meant to interpret the Constitution in as impartial a way as possible, and leave politics to the other branches.
Ginsburg has amassed a kind of cult following, becoming a meme queen over the last few years thanks to her sharp wit and outspoken liberal dissents on various cases. She has even earned the nickname Notorious R.G.B. A June 2015 poll from Public Policy Polling found Ginsburg to be the most popular Supreme Court justice. While her sassy spirit and spitfire opinions in the courtroom and her eloquent dissents are one thing, it's another to openly trash political candidates.
In a 2011 interview with USA Today, Ginsburg recoiled at the idea of politicizing the bench. "What I care most about I think most of my colleagues do, too, is that we want this institution to maintain the position that it has had in this system, where it is not considered a political branch of government." However, to a certain degree, Ginsburg appeared to sing a different tune during her interview with The New York Times. She joked about moving to New Zealand if Trump is elected, and predicted tragedy under a Trump presidency. “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president,” she said. “For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.”
Given Ginsburg's popularity, statements like this do not happen in a vacuum, and they have an impact on voters. Which is why, historically, justices stay out of politics when possible. True, political leanings and ideals often go hand in hand, and we know that the justices have identified political parties. In fact, let's be honest: Those affiliations are often what was needed to get them nominated by their respective presidents in the first place. But once they don the robes, their job is to interpret case law and the Constitution. They take an oath upon being admitted to the Supreme Court to, "faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me." The Court is not always successful in being impartial, that's for sure. But based on her own words and standards, I think Ginsburg herself likely would have been uncomfortable hearing a Supreme Court justice publicly criticize a presidential candidate, even if that candidate was Trump.