By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – In the summer of 2016, while the presidential campaign raged, I ran into a lawyer with impeccable Republican and conservative credentials at the Statehouse.
We stopped to chat and the conversation, naturally, ran to politics.
At one point, he shook his head and said he couldn’t support Donald Trump.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
“For now, I’m just a Hoosier Republican. I can get behind the candidates here in Indiana, but not nationally,” he said.
The breaking point, he explained, came when Trump attacked a federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who had the misfortune to draw a class-action lawsuit involving students who claimed to have been defrauded by Trump University.
Trump claimed the judge couldn’t be impartial because he was “Mexican.” In fact, Curiel was born and educated here in Indiana.
The facts, though, didn’t deter then-candidate Trump.
“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater,” Trump said of Curiel in a speech.
That speech appalled the conservative Hoosier lawyer.
“When Trump attacked the judge, that was too much for me,” the lawyer said. “If you support the courts and the rule of law, you can’t stand for that.”
Trump eventually settled the suit before Curiel’s court by agreeing to pay the aggrieved Trump University $25 million.
I’ve thought of that conversation often in the past two years – generally when President Donald Trump has launched another attack on the courts or a judge.
Those attacks have come often, because the courts have had frequent cause to curb the Trump administration’s assaults on liberty, due process and other enshrined American principles.
This hasn’t happened because judges and courts “hate” Donald Trump.
No, the president’s troubles with the judicial branch have occurred because, to use a great line uttered about a president from a much earlier era, Donald Trump “has about as much use for the Constitution as a tomcat has for a marriage license.”
I’ve known a lot of judges in my career.
The overwhelming majority take their jobs and their roles seriously. They could make a lot more money in private practice. They take their seats on the bench as an act of faith – an expression of their belief in the law and the law’s majesty.
That said, they’re also human beings.
They don’t enjoy being a blowhard’s political punching bag any more than the next person does.
I’ve wondered since that talk with the lawyer when the judges were going to start pushing back against the president – and how they would do it.
The moment came during Thanksgiving week.
A federal district judge in San Francisco blocked the Trump administration from denying asylum to immigrants who cross the border illegally.
“This was an Obama judge,” the president lashed out at Judge Jon S. Tigar. “And I tell you what, it’s not going to happen like this anymore.”
That was too much for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts countered in a statement. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
The chief justice’s public rebuke of the president was in many ways unprecedented.
But, then, Trump’s conduct in office has been unprecedented.
His attempts to undermine and defy the authority of the courts and the law have been more sweeping than anything Richard Nixon or Andrew Jackson – two presidents who also had strong authoritarian predispositions – ever contemplated. Time and again, this president has asserted that he is answerable to no one but himself and that he is above the law.
Roberts’ rebuke was a long time coming but justified.
It also had been predicted – sort of.
Earlier this year, Judge Curiel ruled in favor of the president and rejected a challenge to Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.
In his decision, Curiel noted the great political controversy aroused by the proposed wall and cited the legal reasoning of a “fellow Indiana native” who also was a judge.
That fellow Indiana native?
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who was born in Elkhart.
Hoosier lawyers – you’ve got to love them.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.