This blissful time when the Supreme Court is not rendering decisions is an opportunity to think about the Court’s structure. Proposals to enlarge the Court have been met with claims of a “coup” to destroy the judiciary and a plot to harm “our democracy.” The Supreme Court is an important American institution. It is, however, one of our least democratic ones.
The Supreme Court, of course, is not an elected body. They are appointed by a president (who was elected) and confirmed by a Senate (also an elected body), but once in office, they are not answerable to “the people.” Unlike other appointed officials, they are not subject to removal if administrations or Senate composition change. Justices may sit for thirty or more years and make decisions for decades after the officials who appointed and confirmed them have left office. Their rulings affect Americans who were not even eligible to vote for the president and the senators who appointed and confirmed them. In short, the Supreme Court is not a democratic body. Indeed, in finding enacted laws unconstitutional, it is often acting anti-democratically.
Furthermore, many do not see the Supreme Court as a neutral, thoughtful legal body, but a political one. Such a notion finds traction any time a presidential candidate pledges to appoint Justices not just for their legal acumen or wisdom but also for their perceived views.
The Supreme Court is an important institution but not a perfect one, and perhaps it can be made even better. What is clear, however, is that a change in its size and the timing of who will be on the Court will not destroy or harm democracy. And Justices with life tenure will still have independence.
The Constitution does not define the number of Supreme Court Justices. It merely says: “The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Although the Constitution never expressly gives it the authority, Congress sets the size, which has varied from its original six until after the Civil War when it was set at nine, where it has stayed ever since. That number has seemed sacrosanct since FDR’s failed attempt to expand the Court in 1937.
The Court in the 1930s had found many pieces of New Deal legislation unconstitutional. As Jeff Shesol reports in Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court (2010), the Supreme Court between 1933 and 1936 overturned congressional acts at ten times the historic rate, often using long neglected doctrines and breathing new life into obscure Constitutional clauses to do so. Roosevelt then sought an expansion of the Court. Although Roosevelt gave varying nonpolitical reasons for his plan (What a shock! A politician being disingenuous!), the assumption was that he wanted more Justices so that he could appoint sympathetic people, who would uphold legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president. Or as one might put it, accept democratically enacted laws.
Roosevelt’s proposal was soundly defeated after much rhetoric about his threat to our constitutional government. While FDR’s plan failed by a resounding vote, ultimately he was the winner, and the Supreme Court and conservatives the losers. Here’s why. Soon after the proposal to enlarge the Court was presented, the Court began to uphold New Deal legislation with logic inconsistent with its previous holdings. To many the Court seemed to be bending to political winds, and the perception of it as a partisan institution increased. The proposal to enlarge the Supreme Court did not put Roosevelt in a good light. However, it also put the Court in a bad light when its questionable constitutional interpretations of the early 1930s became recognized as the overreach of biased judges reacting to legislation they did not favor.
Any suggestion since then to expand the Court has met with outcries that our constitutional way of life will be overthrown. Adding Justices only seems to be a partisan power play and not something that could improve justice, the Court, or the perception of the Court.
Current Court decisions, however, as has been true for much of our history, are seen not as neutral constitutional and statutory rulings but as the imposition of personal, political, and increasingly religious views of the judges and those who placed them on the bench. We can’t remove politics from Supreme Court decisions. On some level, all government decisions are political, and the Court is not immune. Writing about a famous case, legal scholar Fred Rodell said, “Both the plaudits and the deference, like the decision itself, and like every significant Supreme Court decision since, were and are rooted in politics, not in law. This only the ignorant would deny and only the naïve deplore.” This may be so, but that does not mean that we should just throw up our hands and accept an overly partisan Court. Instead, in examining proposals for reforming the Supreme Court, we should be seeking ways to make it look, and perhaps be, less politically biased and more politically neutral.
Merely expanding the Court is not a particularly good solution. If Democrats added more Justices, Republicans would be urged to do something comparable when they have the opportunity. Other proposals, however, offer institutional changes in the timing of Supreme Court nominations that, even though they would lead to a larger body, could make the Court appear, and perhaps be, less partisan. I have not studied them all, but one plan has intrigued me. This is not my own plan. I read this proposal, or one much like it…somewhere. I have searched for it, but so far have not found it again. I apologize for not giving proper credit to its initiator.
Here is the idea behind the proposal: Each president gets to appoint one Supreme Court Justice every two years, starting perhaps on the July 1 after the presidential term begins. Of course, since Justices can sit on the Supreme Court until death or resignation, the Court could have an increasing number of judges, which could become unwieldy. For a given case, nine Justices would be picked at random from all the Supreme Court judges. Many courts already operate this way. Intermediate appellate courts, such as the federal Courts of Appeals, have panels of three judges deciding a case but have more than that number sitting on that court. From the larger panel of judges, the requisite number are selected to resolve a case. For example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has thirteen fully active judges, but normally only three decide a case. The court can, therefore, take on more cases and decide them more quickly. Similarly, a Supreme Court that had more than nine judges could consider more cases than it does now. If, for example, the Supreme Court had fourteen justices and nine decided each case, then the Court should be able to accept for review fifty percent more cases than it does now. Fewer Court of Appeals decisions, which are sometimes inconsistent from circuit to circuit, would stand as the final result in a litigation. This could give more certainty, uniformity, and finality to the law.
This would also dampen lawyerly gamesmanship. Deadlines are in place to seek Supreme Court review. If they are not met, the lower court decision becomes final. So, for example, if a party has been ordered to pay $1million or to serve a twenty-year sentence, the money must be paid or the imprisonment served if the petition for Supreme Court review is not timely filed. The litigant cannot wait for a change in Court Justices hoping that they will receive a more favorable chance in front of a newly-constituted Supreme Court.
Unlike individuals, some institutions can delay Supreme Court review until the time seems propitious. For example, assume the government has lost a tax case concerning some new scheme to avoid taxes. Government attorneys may believe that if they get immediate Supreme Court review, they will lose the case before the existing Supreme Court thereby allowing a precedent to be set that allows the scheme to be used by other taxpayers indefinitely. Instead, the government may decide not to seek review in hopes that the makeup of a future Court may be more amenable to its contentions. It may be better for the government to let that individual taxpayer keep the contested moneys to avoid a bad precedent and instead seek review with some other future taxpayer when the Court makeup is different. The government can take the longer view than an individual litigant.
Other institutional groups also try to time Supreme Court review. These institutions represent a cause more than an individual client. Prime examples are the NAACP or the ACLU, but this list now includes a host of conservative organizations as well. These advocacy groups often seek judicial review only when they assess the Supreme Court lineup as favorable to their position. We can expect to see that gamesmanship being played repeatedly in the coming years. With Barrett’s ascension to the Court, conservative legal organization see a solid majority favoring certain kinds of religious claims and Second Amendment expansion, and they will now seek to get Supreme Court review of cases containing such issues.
Such gamesmanship only furthers the notion that it is not truly the Constitution or the law that determines an issue, but the personal predilections of the Justices. The intrinsic merits of a legal argument may stay the same, but the likelihood of an outcome can vary depending on the timing of Supreme Court review.
That lawyerly calculus would change, however, if the nine Justices who heard a case were drawn from a larger pool, and the attorneys seeking review did not know who those nine would be. The addition of a single Justice to the Court would not be the momentous event it now often is. I don’t know for certain what result this would have on Supreme Court decisions and the perceptions of those decisions, but perhaps there would be more focus on the issues and less on the judges.
There is also another option if we had a new Justice every two years, and we had a Supreme Court larger than nine. It is the one I find most interesting.
(concluded July 25)