If you rejoice in the so-called irony or karma of Chief Judge Merrick Garland potentially presiding over a case involving President Donald Trump’s finances, you’re doing democracy wrong.
Garland is the top judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is next to hear a case involving a congressional request for financial documents from Trump dating back years before he was elected. Garland is also the former Supreme Court nominee chosen by then-President Barack Obama in 2016 and stonewalled by Senate Republicans.
Even in refusing to consider his nomination, those senators did not question Garland’s qualifications to serve on the nation’s highest court. A well-respected and seasoned judge like Garland can surely separate the poor political treatment he received three years ago from his responsibility as an impartial member of the judicial branch. And the general public should do the same.
So it was disappointing to see a cascade of celebration on Twitter earlier this week after a federal judge ruled against Trump’s effort to fight the congressional subpoena, making Garland’s court the next step for a case that may eventually wind up at the Supreme Court.
A video from the Huffington Post framed the situation as a “ delicious irony.” Others called it “karma.”
“Trump’s fate now rests in the hands of Merrick Garland, the judge whose Supreme Court seat Republicans effectively stole,” read a hyperbolic tweet from Vanity Fair’s official account.
But it was never Garland’s Supreme Court seat to begin with, nor was it Obama’s. That seat is one of nine that belong to the American people, and while we should all be concerned about the way that Republicans handled Garland’s nomination, the notion that either party or individuals are entitled to seats on the court is decidedly unhelpful to our national debate.
Those celebrating about Garland’s role here seem to think that he will automatically be combative or skeptical of Trump’s position in court based on the previous nomination experience. That’s a dangerous assumption undermining the critical pillars of impartiality and fairness that buttress our legal system. And it falls victim of the same reductionist and problematic view of the judicial branch that Trump himself displays.
Trump has long employed a strategy of attempting to tie the legitimacy of a judge’s ruling to the president who nominated them, which he continued this week when calling the financial documents ruling against him “totally the wrong decision by, obviously, an Obama-appointed judge.”
It’s true, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta was appointed by Obama and confirmed when the Senate was led by a Democratic majority. And that nomination process is not and never has been completely apolitical.
But as Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out last year, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
Unfortunately, many Trump critics are defaulting to his style of judicial simplicity rather than opting for Roberts’ nuance. Perhaps it’s foolish to expect thoughtful judicial takes on Twitter, but is it too much to ask that people who accuse Trump of undermining democratic norms have a little respect for those norms themselves?
Luckily, this wasn’t the case for everyone, even from those on the political left whose instinct was to delight in the development.
“I wish I could say revenge is a dish best served cold, but Merrick Garland is a consummate legal professional who I’m sure will do everything possible to avoid the appearance of any bias,” tweeted Zev Karlin-Neumann, who worked as a speechwriter in the Obama administration. “Which, you know, would have been a great reason to have him on the Supreme Court.”