JUDICIAL OVERREACH OR TRUMP’S OVERREACH — AMISTAD LESSONS
US President Donald Trump thinks the US Judiciary is like that of the third world countries, a term that is derogatory and its use is not recommended. By doing so Donald Trump tries to stereotype a large section of the world as well as his own Judiciary, a marvel of humanity that is appreciated across the world.
Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad, based on the plight of African slaves on board ship Amistad in 1839, who were subject to intense court proceedings and social debate on slavery in America after they had mutinied and killed their captors, has two very moving scenes about independence and fine jurisprudence of the US Judicial system.
First, the then US President Martin Van Buren (1837–1841), under the pressure of pro-slavery southern US states and Spain, gets the judge of the US lower court replaced sensing that the presiding judge would rule against the slave traders and the US government, as the evidence demanded. Buren’s administration replaces him with a young judge expecting a favourable decision from him as the young judge would have his whole career before him and he would not go against the state. But, on the contrary, judicial wisdom and human conscience decides what the young judge would do — the just thing — and he rules against the slave traders and the US government — even if he knows that it will hurt his future career opportunities.
In the final scene of the film, we come across a fine closing argument in the case of the Amistad Africans in the US Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams, former US President (1825–1829) and the senior attorney here. Incidentally, under the pressure of the Southern states and Spain, the US government moves to the US Supreme Court. Though Adams never openly admitted that he was an abolitionist, he, in fact, was and agreed to defend the cause of the Amistad Africans in the US Supreme Court. As the film’s script goes, in support of his arguments, Adams reminds the judges of the US Supreme Court that the Queen of Spain, in official communication with the US, again and again, refers to the incompetent US Courts, comparing with the courts in her country that do what the state demands, something that Adams terms ‘as she plays with her own courts’ in a magical kingdom called Spain. Seven of the nine US Supreme Court judges were themselves southern slave owners. Adams invoked the US Declaration of Independence, freedom and equality of man and the previous US Presidents who fought for these values in his speech. The case was weak technically, apart from the ill-intent of the US administration. Add to it the impeccable defense mounted by John Quincy Adams. But a fear was lingering in everyone’s mind — that majority of the judges were slave masters — a fact that could have easily overturned the decision of the lower court in favour of the US administration and Spain. But like the lower court, the spirit of the US Judicial wisdom prevailed. With just one dissent, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Amistad Africans.
That was 1840s. The film is more or less a true account of one of the most important episodes in the history that propelled the anti-slavery movement in the US to its final fight that resulted in Abraham Lincoln’s Thirteenth Amendment (January 31, 1865) that made slavery illegal thought the US, including the southern states.
Now if someone like a US President feels that the level of that judiciary, that showed a true judicial independence based on the rule of law some 200 years ago, is like of those countries where the judicial independence and integrity are easily compromised, then we can easily assume that the person saying such absurd things has other designs.
This Amistad spirit is alive and kicking in the US Judiciary is evident from the fact that both versions of Trump’s controversial travel ban, that target Muslims and immigrants, were turned down by the US Courts. Donald Trump was always livid over the US Judiciary. And the fact that he drew this the third world’ corollary during his campaign phase, before becoming the US President, tells us that he has designs against the US Judiciary. He would have been advised by his inner circle to pre-empt his moves and to take on the US Judiciary as the Judiciary was expected to play spoilsport in his bizarre policy moves like this travel ban travesty.
Though Donald Trump has said of moving to the US Supreme Court against the ban on his ‘travel ban’, hoping that the 5–4 conservative majority in the top US Court would help him with his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch confirmed, the US Judicial history tells us otherwise, as evident from the Amistad example where six of the slave owing judges ruled against slavery. Neil Gorsuch and a conservative majority over the liberal judges may not work for Trump. Martin Van Buren says in Amistad, replying to the representative of Spain’s queen, that it is the it is the ‘independence of the US courts that keeps the people of the US free’.