Mr. Trump, a real leader shows respect for the law

Donald Trump: Comments on judge 'misconstrued'
Donald Trump: Comments on judge 'misconstrued'

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Donald Trump: Comments on judge 'misconstrued' 00:45

Story highlights

  • Former federal judge says Donald Trump's comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel are wrong
  • Timothy Lewis recalls when Nelson Mandela had the wisdom to accept the legitimacy of a court's ruling against him

Timothy K. Lewis is a former judge on the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He currently serves as Counsel at the Philadelphia-based firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Twenty one years ago, Nelson Mandela sought to lead South Africa from its dark past to a new, post-apartheid era by appointing a Constitutional Court, akin to our Supreme Court. And very soon, it ruled against him, striking down laws that granted sweeping powers to the new president.

Timothy Lewis
Within hours, Mandela announced to the nation that he had been wrong in adopting those laws; that the Court had spoken; that he accepted and respected its decision; and that it would be implemented immediately. Mandela later said, "Nobody, not even the President, is above the law," and "[T]he rule of law generally, and the independence of the judiciary in particular, should be respected."
    These were more than gracious acts of leadership. They were examples of patriotism that elevated the nation's interests above his own. Mandela knew he had to show the utmost respect for the judiciary, especially when it ruled against him. In doing so, he demonstrated a profound awareness of South Africa's potential greatness.
    One might think that the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States would follow Mandela's example in his quest to "make America great" (again).
    But in attacking U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel as having "an absolute conflict" in presiding over the lawsuits against Trump University because of his "Mexican heritage" and membership in a Latino professional association, Donald Trump has demonstrated a profound ignorance of America's potential greatness and our democracy's enduring promise.
    This is not leadership. Leadership implies a healthy respect for our institutions. Unfortunately, the message Mr. Trump imparts is that it's acceptable to disrespect the institution and demean the individual when he disagrees. But it's actually far worse.
    To call into question the legitimacy of a federal judge's work not just because of a disagreement, but because of the judge's ethnicity, diminishes Mr. Trump as a person, as a politician, and most certainly as a potential leader of the free world. And it diminishes our nation.
    This is ironic because of his campaign slogan. But the irony is compounded because his own bigoted commentary proves just how far we still have to go as we aspire to greatness.
    Yet we see that aspiration fulfilled not in anything Mr. Trump has done on the campaign trail, but in the quiet recognition that, today, a first generation Mexican-American like Judge Curiel can make it all the way to the federal bench. This simple truth reflects our finest values. But it seems to have been lost on Mr. Trump in his zeal to impugn based upon race rather than uplift based upon promise.
    Would Mr. Trump say the same thing about a first generation Jewish federal judge overseeing a dispute he had with Israelis if he didn't like the outcome? Would he say it about a first generation Irish judge overseeing a Trump deal with a company from Dublin?
    If he wouldn't, he's a hypocrite; if he would, he's uniquely unfit for office. Either way, we are better than this, and Mr. Trump should know better. And his press release, issued Tuesday, in which he claims he doesn't "feel that one's heritage makes them incapable of being impartial," is directly contradicted -- word for word -- by his repeated statements over the past few days.
    South Africa's constitution is only a couple of decades old. But we've had ours for 227 years. That's a long time to appreciate the meaning of an independent judiciary and to learn to respect the rule of law.
    We can only hope that as he evolves, Donald Trump will find the capacity to learn what Mandela so instinctively knew, and what more than two centuries of sacrifice should have taught us all.