In 2009, Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich slammed President Obama for shaking the hand of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas. White House officials at the time noted that it was just a handshake at an international meeting of world leaders, and did not constitute any sanction of Chavez's rather disturbing behavior. But Gingrich said Obama was boosting the "enemies of America."
Now, it appears, Gingrich has identified other enemies of the state—those pesky members of the U.S. judicial branch who rule in ways Gingrich doesn't like. Never mind the separation of powers or the judicial appeals process. Forget about the reason behind the independence of the judiciary: that judges should not be subject to the same political pressures affecting the legislative and executive branches. Gingrich wants to be able to remove those judges—even cancel entire courts—if they do not do his bidding. And even after Gingrich's idea was slammed by legal minds on the left and right, the former House Speaker and current GOP presidential candidate doubled down, telling CBS's Face the Nation that the president (presumably him, in his vision for the country) could send in U.S. marshals to arrest "activist" judges and force them to appear at congressional hearings to defend their judicial decisions.
Such an idea may sound crazy to some (former Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey has said some of Gingrich's ideas for the judiciary are "dangerous, ridiculous, totally irresponsible, outrageous, off-the-wall, and would reduce the entire judicial system to a spectacle"). But Gingrich might find a sympathetic ear in the bombastic Venezuelan leader, who has been roundly criticized for his own attempts to stifle judicial controls on his power. According to a report this year by the highly-respected Human Rights Watch:
In 2004 President Chavez and his supporters in the National Assembly launched a political takeover of the Supreme Court, filling it with government supporters and creating new measures that make it possible to purge justices from the court. Since then the court has largely abdicated its role as a check on executive power, failing to uphold fundamental rights enshrined in Venezuela's constitution in key cases involving government efforts to limit freedom of expression and association.
The government shows scant respect for democratic checks and balances. Individual judges may face reprisals if they rule against government interests. In December 2009, Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni was detained on the day she authorized the conditional release of Eligio Cedeno, a banker accused of corruption. Afiuni was following a recommendation by the UN working group on arbitrary detentions, given that Cedeno had been in pre-trial detention for almost three years despite, although Venezuelan law prescribes a two-year limit. A day after her arrest, Chavez branded Afiuni a `bandit' who should be sentenced to the maximum 30 years in prison. Accused of corruption, abuse of authority, and "favoring evasion of justice," the judge's right to due process was violated in several respects in criminal proceedings against her. Three UN human rights experts issued a joint press release describing her arrest as 'a blow to the independence of judges and lawyers in the country,' and called for her release. Still, the Supreme Court denied her appeals for the protection of her rights. As of October 2010 she was still held in deplorable conditions in a Caracas women's prison.
Well, that's one way to silence one's political critics.
Government executives around the world find themselves frustrated by legislatures or judiciaries that thwart their agendas or limit their power. The leaders of Kuwait and Kazakhstan recently dissolved their respective parliaments, calling for new elections that could produce more amenable legislative bodies. But while one could forgive President Obama if he secretly wishes, from time to time, that he could dissolve Congress, that's not the way we do things here in America.
Chavez carried it off. Perhaps Gingrich could shake his hand.