Even though the U.S. federal court are hardly hotbeds of liberal sentiment by most standards, their willingness to uphold freedom of speech, the separation of church and state, and equal protection for gay and lesbian citizens has frequently irked conservatives.

Now a majority of would-be Republican presidential candidates appear to have decided that proposing to limit the power of the courts could be a winning campaign issue -- especially among Tea Party-style voters.

Earlier this month, for example, Newt Gingrich declared that as president he would feel free to ignore Supreme Court rulings. He later went on to suggest that a judge who had ruled that a public high school could not include a formal prayer in its graduation ceremony should be forced to defend his decision before a Congressional committee.

Most of the other candidates have hopped on the anti-judicial bandwagon as well, with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman being the only holdouts. Rick Santorum, for example, complains that "we are tired of them feeling that these elites in society can dictate to us.”

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, "Gov. Rick Perry of Texas favors term limits for Supreme Court justices. Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas say they would forbid the court from deciding cases concerning same-sex marriage. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania want to abolish the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, calling it 'a rogue court' that is 'consistently radical.'”

Paul has already gone so far as to introduce a bill, the "We the People Act," that would restrict the jurisdiction of federal courts and make any violation "an impeachable offence."

Although many of the proposals would probably be found unconstitutional -- particularly those which assert that Congress can legislatively overturn Supreme Court rulings -- a Republican Congress might use other methods to limit the influence of the courts. Gingrich, for example, has suggested withholding funding from the 9th Circuit Court to force them to fire their law clerks and turn off the lights in their courtrooms.

The executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, Bert Brandenburg, told the Associated Press that he is concerned the attacks on federal judges may mark the start of a "new cycle of attempts to politicize the courts" and that the proposals would make judges "accountable to politicians, not the Constitution."

Law professor Barry Friendman, however, is skeptical of the proposals, pointing out that any attempt to limit the power of the federal courts -- which are presently dominated by judges appointed by Republican presidents -- would only increase the influence of state courts, which tend to be more liberal.

"The wonder of it coming from the Republicans now is that we have what is easily the most conservative Supreme Court in many, many years," he told the AP. "This is nothing more than red meat they throw to the conservative base."

Photo from IowaPolitics.com, found at Flickr.