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March 20, 2018

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Even a judge need not be so judgmental

After Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg criticized Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump tweeted: “Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot -- resign!”

Trump’s tweet was characteristically crude. It was also inaccurate about Ginsburg’s capacity to do her job. There’s no indication that she is declining intellectually.

Moreover, the observations that enraged Trump are arguably proof of her sagacity. For example, she had said: “He is a faker. He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego.”

Exactly which of these statements is dumb?

But if Ginsburg’s characterization of Trump was accurate, sharing it publicly was indiscreet for a member of the Supreme Court. Ginsburg had to know she would be called upon to decide cases involving the policies of Trump’s administration if he were elected.

Eventually, Ginsburg apologized, calling her remarks “ill-advised” and promising to be “more circumspect” in the future. She’s kept that promise in connection with Trump, but otherwise the 84-year-old justice known to her fans as Notorious RBG has continued to court controversy with her off-the-bench comments.

In October, she called protests by Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who decline to stand for the national anthem “dumb and disrespectful.” (She later had second thoughts about that statement too.)

Now Ginsburg has attracted attention by dissing, albeit in a gentle way, one or more of her colleagues on the court. In an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow at Columbia University, she said: “I respect all of my colleagues and genuinely like most of them.”

Most of them?

Twitter jumped to the conclusion that the remark was a dig at the newest member of the court, Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch. But whether the object of her disaffection was Gorsuch or someone else, why publicly say that you don’t like the people with whom you have to work?

It’s a shame that Ginsburg’s hint that she dislikes some of her colleagues got so much attention, because the rest of the interview was fascinating. She called for a return to bipartisanship in Supreme Court confirmations, discussed the difficulties faced by Hillary Clinton without relapsing into criticism of Trump, and shared poignant memories of her struggles to establish herself as a lawyer in a male-dominated legal profession.

There’s nothing wrong with Supreme Court justices going on the lecture circuit or agreeing to media interviews. But when it comes to some subjects — including presidential elections and the likability of one’s colleagues — even an activist justice should probably exercise judicial restraint.

Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer.