Third Circuit’s Chief Judge expresses alarm at President Trump’s attacks on judges

Near the end of his absorbing talk yesterday in Philadelphia on the state of the Third Circuit, Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith was asked by a lawyer in the audience about the current partisan climate, attacks on judicial independence, and what the federal judiciary can do about it.

Chief Judge Smith responded that he had expected this question and was glad for it. He observed that he needed to be “circumspect” in addressing political or partisan matters, but that, at this point in his life, he “felt obligated to speak candidly.” The room went quiet.

Partisan rhetoric, he said, was at a level and volume we had not seen in our lifetime. While there had been other divisive times in our nation’s history, “this is definitely one of them.” He said there have been “attacks on the judiciary and on judges,” including “by the President of the United States. I find this alarming.”

He recalled Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts’s remarks on judicial independence last year, noting that the Chief Justice had “felt impelled” to make an “unusual public response.”

Chief Judge Smith explained that he was not worried that the attacks on the judiciary would affect him or his colleagues, but that he did worry about the public impact. He joked that he lived in the Alabama-in-between part of Pennsylvania, and he said he listened and heard a lot. When judges are criticized by true believers in one political figure or another, the criticisms are “congenial to the political figure they’re aligned with,” not based on an understanding of how the process works. He went on:

And that’s what we’re about [here he tapped the table for emphasis] is process. If our system is about anything it’s about process, and fair process. And we don’t [tap] have Obama judges and we don’t [tap] have Bush judges, and the people I work with don’t consider themselves that, I don’t consider them that.

Finally, if I can end on this pointed note. Why the hell would I take a life-tenured job guaranteed to earn me less over all those years than I could otherwise make, and I did take a substantial cut many years ago to become a judge, to pledge my allegiance to a political figure? What. Fun. Is. That? The fun of judging is the intellectual challenge and the independence to do what you think is right, what you hope is right legally.

Quite something. I went to this talk expecting nerdy circuit intel, which we also got and which I’ll summarize in a separate post.

I wasn’t expecting history.