DAVENPORT, Iowa — As he works to rev up his conservative base in Iowa with just two weeks to go until the state's caucuses, Newt Gingrich is launching a full-throated assault on a reliable GOP target: judges.
There is little love for the judicial branch among the Republicans seeking the White House. But Gingrich's ridicule has been, by far, the sharpest and the loudest. And it's taken a central role as his campaign struggles to stay atop polls in Iowa, a state where irate social conservatives ousted three judges who legalized same-sex marriage.
"I commend the people of Iowa for sending a strong signal that when judges overreach that they can find a new job," Gingrich told about 200 supporters who turned out to hear him speak in Davenport, Iowa, on Monday.
Gingrich has suggested that judges who issue what he termed "radical" rulings out of step with mainstream American values should be subpoenaed before Congress to explain themselves before facing possible impeachment. As president, he said, he'd consider dispatching U.S. marshals to round up judges who refuse to show voluntarily. In extreme cases, whole courts could be eliminated.
In the final debate before voters weigh in at the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Gingrich called the courts "grotesquely dictatorial." He cast the fight in stark religious terms reminiscent of the culture wars, in which a secular, legal elite was encroaching on religious liberties.
The targets of Gingrich's strongest derision: the West Coast's 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a perennial punching bag for the right, and a federal judge in Texas who banned prayer in a public school.
The rhetoric — in which Gingrich promises a more muscular executive branch that would simply ignore some federal court rulings it disagrees with — draws applause on the campaign trail. But among some conservative legal experts who, like Gingrich, embrace a more limited judicial role, his ideas are being met with alarm.
Two former attorneys general named to the nation's top law enforcement post by Republican President George W. Bush have slammed Gingrich's proposal.
Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge, said Gingrich's ideas were "dangerous, ridiculous, totally irresponsible, outrageous, off-the-wall and would reduce the entire judicial system to a spectacle."
Alberto Gonzales was disturbed by the provision that would allow Congress to police judicial decisions. "I cannot support and would not support efforts that would appear to be intimidation or retaliation against judges," he said.
Gingrich's chief Republican rival, Mitt Romney, also chimed in, using Gingrich's remarks on judges as further evidence to suggest the former Georgia congressman isn't steady enough to be president.
"His comments about the justices and the Congress, sending the Capitol police to bring in judges — that's not exactly a practical idea or a Constitutional idea," Romney said.
Bert Brandenberg, executive director of the nonpartisan group Justice at Stake, which favors an independent judiciary, said Gingrich's ideas "would plunge the rule of law into chaos and dysfunction."
"They would make courts answer to politicians rather than the law and Constitution," he said.
But Gingrich said he approaches the issue as a historian, not a lawyer. In a 54-page paper peppered with quotes from The Federalist Papers, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, he outlines what he says is a judicial power grab that the founders never intended.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said that while GOP criticism of judges has faded as a national issue, "here in Iowa, it resonates more than most places."
The battle over gay marriage became a fresh rallying cry for social conservatives in the state in 2009. Gingrich knows this well. He provided $200,000 in seed money to what became a successful effort to remove three of the judges who held same-sex marriage in the state was constitutional. That won him support from key evangelicals in the state.
And his strong words on the stump have found an appreciative audience.
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"Why shouldn't judges have to answer questions about what they do, just like everyone else, especially if they are out there pushing their own agenda?" asked 62-year-old Tom Hall of Cedar Rapids, who attended a Gingrich speech in nearby Hiawatha.
Still, not everyone thought the issue was a winner.
Bob Wachtel, a 63-year-old house painter, had crossed the Mississippi River from Geneseo, Ill., to hear Gingrich speak in Davenport on Monday. He called the fixation on judges distracting.
"There is plenty to talk about with jobs and the economy, and that's what people are really worried about," Wachtel said.
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