The negative reaction was swift and ran the gamut from liberal Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who immediately, publicly — and justifiably — responded that “threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous.”
Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrats need to learn from this episode. One lesson is that they were wrong to answer the chief justice, initially, with accusations of selective outrage, ostensibly because he had not condemned President Trump last week for demanding Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor recuse from “anything having to do with Trump or Trump-related” due to their alleged bias against him, nor when the president impugned the district judge presiding over his friend Roger Stone’s trial.
This is unfair to a jurist who has tried to keep the court out of the rapidly polarizing political fray, sometimes at a cost to his standing among fellow conservatives. Chief Justice Roberts forthrightly rebuked the president in 2018 for characterizing a judge with whom he disagreed as “an Obama judge.” If he responded to every one of Mr. Trump’s out-of-line tweets about the courts, he would have no time to read briefs.
In any case, Mr. Schumer’s comments were arguably worse than the president’s toward Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, improper as those were. Though not something litigants can seek on a blanket basis, much less via tweet, recusal at least is a legal remedy for which parties may petition, and which judges may refuse. There was no threat attached to Mr. Trump’s statements (this time), whereas Mr. Schumer’s was conspicuously heavy on the “or else” aspect.
Second, candor counts. Mr. Schumer compounded his original error by implausibly claiming, through a spokesman, that his outburst targeted not the two Trump-appointed justices but “Senate Republicans.” Even in his subsequent apology, Mr. Schumer denied referring to anything other than “political consequences” for Mr. Trump, Senate Republicans and the Supreme Court, “and it is a gross distortion to imply otherwise.” Even if you buy that, surely Mr. Schumer shares the blame for making himself so easy to misunderstand.
Mr. Schumer’s behavior seemed especially discordant after Super Tuesday primaries in which his party’s voters signaled their preference for a less polarizing politics by voting massively for former vice president Joe Biden. American institutions need an alternative to the cynicism about politicians and courts that Mr. Trump encourages and then exploits, which is something Mr. Schumer should remember the next time he’s tempted to fight the president with his own methods.