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Trump does himself no favors with attacks on the federal judiciary

When a president with autocratic tendencies goes after courts, it should make Americans a little nervous.
Image: President Trump Signs Executive Orders Regarding Trade
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about trade in the Oval Office of the White House March 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.
In his 2010 State of the Union address, then-President Barack Obama expressed his dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling."With all due deference to separation of powers," Obama said, "last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections. And I urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps correct some of these problems."Conservatives, the media, and many prominent figures in the legal community responded with a spirited freak-out -- not to defend the Citizens United rulings, but to balk at the president's public concerns. Americans were told that the remarks, delivered in front of several justices who were on hand for the address, represented an assault on the federal judiciary. A debate ensued about whether Obama had gone too far.Seven years later, with Donald Trump continuing to rant and rave about federal courts that refuse to do what he wants them to do, the complaints from 2010 seem almost quaint.

President Trump said Wednesday that he has "absolutely" considered proposals that would split up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where judges have blocked two of his executive actions."Absolutely, I have," Trump said of considering 9th Circuit breakup proposals during a far-ranging interview with the Washington Examiner at the White House. "There are many people that want to break up the 9th Circuit. It's outrageous."

In his comments to the Washington Examiner, the president added that his opponents "immediately" run to the 9th Circuit, expecting a favorable outcome from the nation's most progressive bench. The interview followed a Trump Twitter tantrum yesterday morning about the 9th Circuit.In reality, much of Trump's rhetoric was plainly wrong, and the idea that plaintiffs in San Francisco were court-shopping when they filed suit in San Francisco is pretty silly.But there's a larger truth to keep in mind: when a president with autocratic tendencies goes after courts for upholding the law, repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of decisions that go against him, it should make Americans a little nervous.

Charles Geyh, an Indiana University law professor with expertise on judicial conduct and ethics, said Trump is sending a dangerous message in his latest attack on the judiciary: "As the leader of the free world, I should be able to do what I choose. The court shouldn't be able to get involved."Geyh said that attitude shows a lack of understanding of the equal roles of the three branches of government, specifically of the judiciary's job to serve as a check on the executive branch."Presidents have disagreed with court rulings all the time. What's unusual is he's essentially challenging the legitimacy of the court's role. And he's doing that without any reference to applicable law," Geyh told The Washington Post. "That they are blocking his order is all the evidence he needs that they are exceeding their authority.""That's worse than wrong," Geyh added. "On some level, that's dangerous."

Let's not forget that as recently as February, Trump told the public that the American legal system "is broken" because his Muslim ban had failed in the courts. It was part of a series of related salvos -- let's not forget the references to a "so-called" federal judge and his racist rhetoric about Judge Gonzalo Curiel last year -- in which Trump expressed contempt for the judiciary. He's even made the case that U.S. courts represent some kind of security threat.Our courts, I'm pleased to report, are fine. I wish I could say the same about our president's appreciation for the American system of government.