Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed "smartest guy in the room," may have outsmarted himself in his latest assault on the American judiciary, just as his front-running status for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination is shining a brighter spotlight than ever on him.
The former House speaker's call for the removal of federal judges he considers too far out of the public mainstream, even to the point of forcibly hauling them before Congress to explain and justify their rulings, calls into question his judgment and his credential as a historian, so often flourished in candidate debates.
For many conservatives, as well as longtime liberal foes, Mr. Gingrich's declarations on CBS News' "Face the Nation" on what he calls judicial extremism were a bridge too far. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a George W. Bush appointee, has labeled them "dangerous, ridiculous, totally irresponsible, outrageous, off the wall," adding that such views "would reduce the entire judicial system to a spectacle."
It is particularly perilous politically for Mr. Gingrich to take on the American political system itself, and perhaps the one branch that is still trusted by most voters, at a time the executive and the legislative branches are mired in low public approval. His suggestion that congressional committees could get rid of certain judges whose rulings displease them invites speculation about Mr. Gingrich's appreciation of the basic concepts of checks and balances and the separation of powers.
In his attack on the judiciary, this former history teacher at a small Georgia college invoked Anti-Federalist President Thomas Jefferson, who in the early 1800s voided the creation of 16 new federal circuit court judgeships to be filled by the Federalist faction of defeated President John Adams.
But this was a far cry from challenging specific judicial rulings as extreme or out of favor with mainstream thought, as Mr. Gingrich proposes, and coercing judges to tell Congress why they ruled as they did on certain issues. The Constitution, from its outset, provided for impeachment of federal judges by the House and trial by the Senate — the same impeachement process as for the president — but only for bad behavior, involving "Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," not the substance of their rulings.
In recent presidential candidate debates, held before overwhelmingly strong conservative audiences and sometimes sponsored by right-wing groups, Mr. Gingrich has generated heavy applause and cheering for his anti-judiciary views. But rival Mitt Romney, stepping up his attacks on Mr. Gingrich as his poll figures have risen, rebutted him in a debate on how to deal with "excessive judges," and Ron Paul called the notion of Congress acting as an arbiter of judicial rulings "a real affront of the separation of powers."
Until his remarks denouncing judicial opinions that were not to his liking on gay marriage and school prayer, and his specific attack on the oft-liberal decisions of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California, Mr. Gingrich had pledged to put a more positive face on his campaign. He vowed not to say anything negative about his opponents, but that vow obviously did not cover the one branch of government that has always been a favorite target.
In one of the last debates prior to the Jan. 3 Iowa precinct caucuses, Mr. Gingrich said the courts have been "grotesquely dictatorial and far too powerful." Elsewhere, he said the Supreme Court, in its 5-4 ruling giving Guantanamo detainees the right to challenge their detention before a judge, "was clearly an overreach." He said the president as commander-in-chief in control of prisoners of war could render the ruling "null and void," adding that "under very rare circumstances, the executive branch might choose to ignore a court decision."
Such comments might well cause voters, and particularly conservatives who find Mr. Paul appealing, to think twice about putting Mr. Gingrich in the White House as commander-in-chief, believing he had the power to disregard a decision of the highest court in the land.
Bringing his views before the nation so conspicuously on a political talk show, and thus generating wide print, television and Internet re-airing, is risky business for a candidate already tagged by many critics and commentators as a loose cannon. The New Newt seems increasingly not new at all.
Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is email@example.com.