In Pennsylvania, a Republican lawmaker unhappy with a State Supreme Court ruling on gerrymandering wants to impeach the Democratic justices who authored it. In Iowa, a running dispute over allowing firearms in courthouses has prompted bills by Republican sponsors to slash judges’ pay and require them to personally pay rent for courtrooms that are gun-free. In North Carolina, the Republican Party is working on sweeping changes to rein in state courts that have repeatedly undercut or blocked laws passed by the legislature. Rather than simply fighting judicial rulings, elected officials in some states across the country — largely Republicans, but Democrats as well — are increasingly seeking to punish or restrain judges who hand down unfavorable decisions, accusing them of making law instead of interpreting it.
Civil liberties advocates and other critics have a different take: The real law-flouting, they say, is by politicians who want to punish justices whose decisions offend their own ideological leanings.
Court-bashing is nothing new. As far back as the 1800s, New Hampshire’s legislature disbanded the state’s Supreme Court five times, said Bill Raftery, a senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., who has tracked legislation affecting the judicial system for years.
But political attempts to reshape or constrain state courts have risen sharply in the last 10 years, Mr. Raftery said, propelled by polarization and a fading of the civics-book notion of governmental checks and balances. That became especially true, he said, during the Great Recession that began in 2007, when legislators slashed spending for state judicial systems in the name of balancing budgets — but also, sometimes, in the cause of punishing courts for rulings they disliked.