When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump came to San Diego in May 2016 for a campaign speech, he went on a 12-minute tangent about the lawsuit against Trump University, pending then in the downtown federal courthouse.
He took particular aim at U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the case who was working just a handful of blocks from where Trump spoke.
“I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself,” he said in the diatribe. Later he mused, “The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican,” though Curiel was born in Indiana, a fair distance from Mexico.
Trump was accused of racism and got a strong dose of condemnation for undermining a key tenet of the American legal system — the independence of the judiciary. The president of the American Bar Association issued a statement that said Trump’s attack “crosses the line of propriety and risks undermining judicial independence.” And the prestigious American Board of Trial Advocates, or ABOTA, a trial lawyers group, also condemned him. Bar associations from San Diego to New York chimed in, too.
A few years later, the outcry has been much more muted against another politician who also has taken some pointed, personal verbal shots at the bench — including one of Curiel’s colleagues.
On Feb. 2, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement after a panel of judges for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, struck down a law that banned people with domestic violence convictions from owning firearms. The panel said it violated the Second Amendment gun rights of citizens. Newsom decried the ruling and called out the judges by name.
“Judge Cory Wilson, Judge James Ho, and Judge Edith Jones,” he said. “These three zealots are hellbent on a deranged vision of guns for all, leaving government powerless to protect its people.” He also ripped U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez in San Diego for past rulings striking down several state firearms laws — including one likening the AR-15 to a Swiss army knife — and called him an “activist judge” who would soon rule for a second time on state bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
But that has not landed Newsom in the same hot water as Trump. So far it appears only ABOTA has pushed back. The group issued a statement on Feb. 16 which read in part “the personal denigration of judges should not be tolerated, especially when done by those who hold powerful government offices.”
It wasn’t the first time Newsom has tagged Benitez. In 2021 he called Benitez “a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and National Rifle Association.” Legal groups, including ABOTA and the San Diego bar, criticized him at that time.
A spokesperson for Newsom said Feb. 16 his remarks speak for themselves. One thing the governor made sure to point out in those comments, as he often does when it comes to judicial issues, was that he is “the son of a judge.” (William Newsom was both a Superior Court and state appeals court judge for two decades.)
It’s a rhetorical trope that implies he has some special stature formed by a close connection to the bench, which allows him to criticize. But if there is anyone who should know the effects of undermining judicial independence, it’s the son of a judge.