Republican Donald Trump thrust the U.S. Supreme Court into the presidential campaign debate on Wednesday, calling for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to resign and describing her as mentally unfit after she lambasted him in media interviews.
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The Republican presidential nominee led conservatives in a chorus of outrage over the comments by Ginsburg, who described Trump as a "faker" and speculated about the possibility of moving to New Zealand if he won the White House.
In a post-midnight counter-attack on Twitter, Trump said the 83-year-old leader of the court's liberal wing had "embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot - resign!"
Other Republicans jumped in, saying Ginsburg's comments showed that she could not be an impartial voice on the country's highest court.
"For someone on the Supreme Court who is going to be calling balls and strikes in the future based upon whatever the next president or Congress does, that strikes me as inherently biased and out of the realm," Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said on CNN on Tuesday.
The New York Times and Washington Post joined in the rebukes, with the Times asking her to uphold the court's tradition of silence in political campaigns and drop the "punditry and name-calling."
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The furor erupted as Trump prepared for the Republicans' July 18-21 convention to formally nominate him for the Nov. 8 election. It gave him an issue to help rally conservatives in his party who are divided over his unorthodox candidacy but concerned that the high court leans too liberal. Recent rulings upholding racial preferences in university administrations and striking down tough abortion restrictions in Texas have compounded that mistrust.
Ginsburg is the senior liberal on the court, which has been ideologically split between four liberals and four conservatives since conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died in February.
"This gives Trump the ability to attack not only Justice Ginsburg but ultimately the authority of the Supreme Court. That is a very bad situation," said Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who served as a lawyer in the White House under President George W. Bush.
U.S. Supreme Court justices are not required to follow the code of judicial conduct that applies to judges on lower federal courts. The code, set by the U.S. Judicial Conference, says judges should not "make speeches for a political organization or candidate, or publicly endorse or oppose a candidate for public office."
Still, the judges on the country's top court typically try to stay out of the political fray.
As a judicial counterweight to the executive and legislative branches of government, the court has a sometimes pivotal role in deciding some of the most divisive social issues in American life. In recent years, major rulings legalized gay marriage nationwide and upheld President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul.
NOT 'DEMOCRATS OR REPUBLICANS'
In public remarks earlier this year, Chief Justice John Roberts stressed it was important for the justices not to be seen as political players, saying criticisms of partisanship, which he described as inaccurate, were damaging to the court's reputation.
"We don't work as Democrats or Republicans," he said.
Ginsburg was not immediately available for comment on Trump's remarks and the Times editorial.
The Supreme Court, whose nine justices are nominated by the U.S. president to lifetime appointments, had already been caught up in political controversy as the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate refused to take up Democratic President Obama's nominee to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland.
Republicans have said the next president should be allowed to nominate a replacement for Scalia. Trump has emphasized the importance of naming conservative justices to the court.
The next president, potentially serving two four-year terms, could have the opportunity to appoint up to three new justices, not including Scalia's replacement. Ginsburg is the oldest of the justices. Justice Anthony Kennedy turns 80 on July 23, while Justice Stephen Breyer turns 78 in August.
Democrats defended Ginsburg, with U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana saying "she called him (Trump) for what she saw" and Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota saying "I think she's the ultimate determiner of what's appropriate and what isn't."
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who dropped his presidential bid on Tuesday and endorsed rival Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic candidate for the election, told ABC's "Good Morning America" he agreed with Ginsburg. "I think that Trump is a total opportunist," Sanders said.
But Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said, "I don't think we're well-served by Supreme Court justices openly expressing their political opinions."
Asked about Ginsburg's remarks, White House spokesman Josh Earnest responded with a joke referencing a nickname used widely on social media by Ginsburg's admirers.
"She didn't earn the nickname the Notorious R.B.G. for nothing," he said. The name was inspired by rapper Notorious B.I.G.
But, saying he had been similarly asked in the last year about some controversial remarks that Scalia once made, Earnest said he would not comment further.
(Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson and Caren Bohan; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Frances Kerry)