As President Donald Trump enters the second half of his first term, the rule of law—the general principal that everyone is subject to the law—has come under much scrutiny.
Some believe the ramped-up rhetoric and criticism on the judiciary from the commander-in-chief are inexcusable. But others, citing the nomination hearing of conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, argue that Democrats also have shown a disregard for the rule of law.
The Connecticut Bar Association felt so strongly about the topic that it devoted half a day to the “2018 Rule of Law Conference.” The event brought together leaders in the fields of law, politics and the media to brainstorm on how to improve the rule of law and to make recommendations on making it stronger. The CBA billed its conference as one that would “discuss the rule of law, its value to our society, new challenges to its sustainability, and how we can cooperate to protect it.”
The conference came just as the issue took center stage on several fronts. For instance, in an event that made national news and drew rebuke and pushback from many on the right, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts—in an unprecedented move—spoke out against Trump’s critique of the judiciary. Roberts did not mention the president by name, but took aim at Trump’s criticism of an “Obama judge,” who ruled against the administration.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” Roberts said in response to a query by The Associated Press. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. …. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
In Connecticut, attorneys weighed in with differing views.
Hartford-based lawyer Jamie Sullivan, who co-authored a book on ethics and law, believes that—because of what he sees as the barrage of criticism on the judiciary—”the rule of law has never been stronger.”
“I believe this because, ironically, judges are standing their ground,” Sullivan said. “I’m proud of this profession. The judiciary has shown a lot of courage. I’d like to have a bumper sticker that says, ‘Have you hugged your federal or state judge lately?”’
Sullivan, managing partner of the Hartford-based Howard, Kohn, Sprague & FitzGerald, believes Trump is reckless in his language aimed at the rule of law and the judiciary in particular, saying the president is “utterly unpredictable.”
But prominent Connecticut attorney Stan Twardy believes everyone is to blame for the current jarring tone and any lack of civility.
“The rule of law is a contract people have to govern themselves,” said Twardy, a partner at Day Pitney and former U.S. attorney in Connecticut. ”The rule of law has been under attack before Trump was elected. People have taken the adherence to the rule of law for granted and, therefore, fail to ensure that subsequent generations are aware of it.”
A Trump supporter, Minnella said he believes Trump “does not mean to attack the judiciary.”
“Trump lays it all out there. He calls a spade a spade,” Minnella said. “It may not be politically correct, but that’s Trump. Sometimes he is his own worst enemy, yet he is true to himself. I think, in his heart, he thinks he is doing what is best for the American people.”
While Sullivan levels harsh words at Trump, both Twardy and Minnella won’t lay the blame for attacks on the judiciary and rule of law at the steps of the Oval Office, although both attorneys say Trump can go too far.
“The judiciary is part of our government and when the branches do no respect each other, there is a problem.” Twardy said.
“I think it’s counterproductive for the president to be talking about a judge’s heritage,” Twardy continued, referring to the president’s admonition of a judge of Mexican-American descent with whose ruling Trump disagreed. “[Chief Justice] Roberts pushed back, and that was important for the judiciary to do.”
Similarly, Minnella said, “Sitting judges should not be criticized. Period.”
Minnella, though, says criticism should be bipartisan. He cites the recent Kavanaugh hearings and claims the Democrats showed a total disregard for etiquette and the rule of law.
“The Democrats were not judging the man or his qualifications or his background and years on the D.C. bench,” Minnella said. “They were attacking him because he was appointed by Trump and the GOP. What Kavanaugh went through during those hearings was not right.”
Twardy believes education is the answer.
“There is no magic wand you will weave,” he said. “You need to be out in the public and remind people of the importance of the rule of law. We have to speak out and let people know the rule of law is important. Our society depends on the rule of law.”