Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas say they would forbid the court from deciding cases concerning same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania want to abolish the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, calling it a “rogue” court that is “consistently radical.”
Criticism of “activist judges” and of particular Supreme Court decisions has long been a staple of political campaigns. But the new attacks, coming from most of the Republican candidates, are raising broader questions about how the legal system might be reshaped if one of them is elected to the White House next year.
“These threats go far beyond normal campaign season posturing,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a research and advocacy group that seeks to protect judicial independence. “They sound populist, but the proposal is to make courts answer to politicians and interest groups.”
The Supreme Court delivered the presidency to George W. Bush, interpreted the Second Amendment to guarantee an individual right to bear arms and allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections. And many Republicans are looking to the Supreme Court for vindication in the political battle with President Obama over his health care overhaul.
The Republican candidates have focused their anger at court rulings on social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and the role of religion in public life. Those issues hold the potential to fire up the party’s base and to provide crucial support in the primaries.
In attacking the courts, the Republican candidates sometimes seem to hedge their vows to remain faithful to the Constitution. Many of their proposals aimed at curtailing the power of the courts would require the document to be amended.
Still, the suggestions from Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum concerning the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which hears cases from federal district courts in nine Western states, are particularly bold. In February, Mr. Santorum told a Tea Party group in South Carolina that he would “sign a bill tomorrow to eliminate the Ninth Circuit,” adding: “That court is rogue. It’s a pox on the western part of our country.”
Republicans love activist judges when they rule in favor of corporations, such as the Citizen’s United case. It’s only when they don’t get their way that they throw a temper tantrum and want to rig the courts in their favor.