Hong Kong magistrate Bina Chainrai sentenced a local politician to three months in prison for hitting a pedestrian with a baton during pro-democracy protests in 2014. Dozens of supporters of the politician responded after the sentencing by hurling insults and racial epithets at Magistrate Chainrai. On Wednesday, several members of the Hong Kong bar condemned the slurs and pledged support for an independent judiciary.
The tone of the condemnations, however, struck me as a bit odd. One group stated, “Any attack on judges for reasons unconnected to their decisions, irrespective of their nationality, sex or other personal attributes that they possess, are wholly unacceptable and must be strongly condemned.” Another said that “personal attacks on a judge for reasons unrelated to the judgment is an attack on Hong Kong’s judicial independence.”
I have added emphasis to both statements to make the problem clear. Personal attacks on a judge are plainly unacceptable when they are based on the judge’s race, gender, nationality, and so on. But equally inappropriate–at least from the American point of view–are personal attacks on a judge based on the substance of the judge’s opinion. It is fine to challenge a judge’s reasoning, or suggest that the opinion will lead to bad policy, but ad hominem attacks are never acceptable.
The United States is struggling through its own crisis of civility these days. The President has issued crude tweets about judges on several occasions. Some self-styled progressives cheered when Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016. And a small cadre of academics are even trying to suggest that basic civility is a racist construct.
It’s sad to see the same problem infecting Hong Kong. Norms of civility must go hand in hand with the rule of law, in every nation and in every era. Critique judicial decisions, yes, but leave the personal attacks at home.