On Gingrich’s judicial power play

Mr. Gingrich thinks well of himself – by itself, a prerequisite for the presidency. Part of the American vetting process we call caucuses, primaries and campaigns is about inquiring just how well one thinks of oneself, and just how one thinks well of oneself.

Mr. Gingrich gives us a glimpse into both by his assault on activist judges. He has ramped up the rhetoric – far beyond its traditional mooring in the importance of presidential elections, because presidents populate the judiciary. That subtle interplay between the branches – a perfect instance of what we traditionally celebrate as “checks and balances” – doesn’t satisfy Mr. Gingrich.

He wishes to make a case for the other two branches aggressively taking back power from the judiciary. He makes this case radically, as befits the bigness of his ideas. Presidents (and presumably governors) are not necessarily bound by Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution, entire courts (such as the Ninth Circuit) should be abolished, and individual judges should be held accountable for opinions that a president or a congressional committee consider unconstitutional, and subpoenaed, if necessary, to explain their decisions.

I disagree strongly with Mr. Gingrich’s splash-play on judges – but I hasten to add, his ideas are not “crazy.” The Supreme Court’s final authority on constitutional interpretation was an unsettled and controversial question before 1803, when Chief Justice John Marshall handed down the landmark Marbury v. Madison decision. And the controversy continued simmering thereafter (emphasis on “simmering,” as we conducted judicial and political business as if the issue were finally settled).

Mr. Gingrich is correct that Congress has the technical power to abolish and add lower courts, and even to haul judges before Congress. But not all technical powers are wisely exercised, a point that should resonate with conservatives.

Curiously, Mr. Gingrich’s remedy for a “constitutional crisis” (and for the record, we are not in the midst of a “constitutional crisis,” at least not if that phrase has any of the gravity that the Constitution itself has) is to radically politicize the Constitution. If you believe we’re in the midst of a constitutional crisis now, buckle your seatbelts. Strip the Supreme Court of supremacy in constitutional interpretation (a notion, ironically, with considerable liberal support), abolish the Ninth Circuit, and subpoena judges to explain their decisions to Congress – and we’ll be awash in weekly constitutional crises.

Mr. Gingrich might have sounded sensible had he urged a more serious constitutional conversation. For example, he could have called for serious congressional inquiries into constitutional doctrines applied by the courts. He could have promoted hearings by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees featuring panels of legal experts that educated Congress and the public on the origins, justifications and consequences of various holdings. That would be a public service, and smack less of branch bullying.

But of course, Mr. Gingrich believes he is seizing upon a hot-button issue, and doing so in a radical way that could galvanize conservative support for him as the only muscular conservative in the race for the Republican nomination.

As Mr. Gingrich has very little money and very little organization, compared to Mr. Romney, he rather desperately needs a surrogate for what organization and money get a candidate: credibility and momentum. Attacking activist judges plays well with the base, but is insufficiently attention-getting by itself. So Mr. Gingrich couples it with a grand re-shuffling of the constitutional balance of powers, as befits the bigness (and the bluster) of his ideas.

It’s a long shot, but it’s Mr. Gingrich’s Hail Mary – much as John McCain, with his similarly challenged campaign, threw the Sarah Palin Hail Mary – not with conviction that he was choosing carefully, but precisely with the knowledge that choosing carefully doomed him, and that only an apparently reckless long-shot, which might, just might, open into some kind of excitement and momentum, was his only hope.

The difference is that John McCain stared at the juggernaut of history bearing down upon him, and threw a Hail Mary, while Newt Gingrich imagines himself the juggernaut of history poised to sweep civilization, and throws a Hail Mary hoping how well he thinks of himself will be contagious.