President Biden has put together a commission to examine the size of the Supreme Court. A bill was introduced in Congress to expand the Supreme Court from nine to thirteen justices. In response, a Republican congressman said the Democrats’ plan is to do as much harm to “our democracy” as possible. I wondered about his definition of democracy for, while the Supreme Court is an important American institution, it is one of our least democratic features.
The Supreme Court, of course, is not an elected body; the Justices are neither voted in nor answerable to “the people.” Since Justices may sit for thirty or more years, they make decisions for decades after the officials who appointed and confirmed them have left office. This can also be long after many Americans were even eligible to vote for the president and senators who appointed and confirmed them. The Supreme Court is not a democratic body. Indeed, in finding validly 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. We know that the backgrounds of possible Supreme Court nominees are analyzed to foretell their ruling on important issues.
If the Court was to be expanded, Biden would be expected by many to nominate people who would rule in a “liberal” fashion, which means that the Republicans will oppose any expansion of the Supreme Court. Unless changes are made to the anti-democratic filibuster rules, a larger Supreme Court is unlikely. Even so, that should not end considerations for reforming the process even if a larger Court resulted. 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.
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 since. That number has seemed sacrosanct since FDR’s failed attempt to expand the Court in 1937.
The Court 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 clauses of the Constitution 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 that seemed 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 a light when its questionable constitutional interpretations became recognized as being 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. Something like this passage from an email I have just received from a conservative institution will be repeated many times:
Political elites on the radical Left have officially taken the first step in their plot to overthrow the U.S. Supreme Court. With the Biden Administration’s recent announcement of their new Supreme Court “reform” commission, there’s no mistaking it any longer: the extreme Left set its sights on permanently turning our independent judiciary into a tool of raw political power. And now taking it even further, Democrats have filed a bill to add 4 seats to the U.S. Supreme Court. Let’s call it what it is: a coup.
Liberals, on the other hand, have seen the Republican denial of the Merrick Garland nomination and the subsequent approval of Amy Coney Barrett as exercises of raw political power. These moves are seen not as a coup, but as a means of transforming the judiciary into a more partisan institution. A Democratic congressional candidate in the last election, when asked about court packing, said what many others think:
Sure, let’s talk about packing the court. Let’s talk about how Republicans have won the popular vote only 1 of last 7 Presidential elections but have nominated 14 of last 19 SCOTUS picks. Let’s talk about how Mitch McConnell denied President Obama’s appointments of 110 Federal judges, and a SCOTUS appointment. Those 110 appointments were then appointed by President Trump with conservative judges, and the SCOTUS pick denied to Obama was given to Trump. And now, going back on their own rule to not appoint SCOTUS justices in an election year, the GOP wants to appoint a justice in an election year. You can’t accuse Democrats of a hypothetical event that never happened while ignoring the actual court packing done by Republicans.
It seems inevitable that those holding this latter view want to use present Democratic political power to balance the partisan Republican actions. Our country is harmed the more that Supreme Court rulings are seen not as neutral constitutional and statutory rulings but as merely the imposition of personal, political, and increasingly religious views of the judges and those who placed them on the bench. An expanded Court might bring us a more balanced Court now, but ultimately, just as the Republicans have damaged the Supreme Court by their actions, the Democrats may do the same in the name of balance. The functioning of our constitutional government is harmed if we all believe as Roy Cohn did when he said, “I don’t want to know what the law is, I want to know who the judge is.” The Republican actions foster that feeling, and actions to counterbalance them by expanding the Court can do the same.
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 partisan and more politically neutral.
Many reforms have been proposed including adding Justices now, which, of course, will be seen as and would be a partisan move even if it is warranted by Republican actions. Expansion would apparently be a one-shot deal, but of course, 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 has intrigued me. But now my embarrassment. I know that I read this proposal, or one much like it, somewhere. It was online, and I did not save it. I have looked for it, but so far have not found it again. I apologize for not giving proper credit, which I hope to correct.
The core of this unique proposal is that each president gets to appoint a Supreme Court Justice every two years, say on the July 1 after the presidential term begins. Presidents would make another appointment every two years thereafter. 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. Instead, in this scenario nine Justices would be picked at random from all the Supreme Court judges to decide a case. 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 panoply 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. 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 party 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 are able to wait for 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 Supreme Court review, they will lose the case before an existing Supreme Court thereby allowing a precedent being 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 they have been joined by a host of conservative organizations. These advocacy groups often seek review only on issues 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, Second Amendment expansion, and claims limiting or perhaps eliminating the right to abortion, and they will 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.
I also saw 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.
If every two years the president could nominate a new person to the Supreme Court Justice, the Court could have more than nine Justices. Instead of having the entire group decide all cases, which could be unwieldy, or instead of drawing nine from all the Justices, there is another intriguing possibility. The nine most recently appointed Justices would regularly render the Supreme Court decisions. The displaced Justices would move to a reserve status. That judge would be available whenever one of the regular nine was unavailable for whatever reason such as illness or a conflict of interest. If one of the regular nine died or resigned, the last regularly sitting justice would become one of the regular nine again until another Justice was appointed at the scheduled time.
An obvious question arises. Would this violate the constitutional provision that federal judges have life tenure? (The Constitution actually says judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.”) I don’t think so. Judges who were appointed more than eighteen years ago and moved to the new reserve status would still hold office. Chief Justice Roberts in his nomination hearing said that he planned to judge like an umpire calling balls and strikes without his personal values affecting his decisions. Let’s stay with the baseball analogy. Nine players take the field, but the other players on the roster are available to come into the game if needed. The players on the field are in the major leagues, but those in the bullpen or in the dugout (I wanted to say “on the bench.” Ha. Ha.) are major leaguers and are on the team, too. With this proposal, the nine Judges actively sitting on the bench (Oxymoron? Actively sitting?) are Supreme Court Justices, but those back in chambers waiting to be called upon would also be Supreme Court Justices, and they can stay in that office during good behavior.
With this proposal, judges would regularly decide cases for eighteen years. That eighteen-year period has advantages. Among other things, it would move the Court to the practice that it has had for most of its history. Before 1959, the average length of tenure on the Supreme Court was thirteen or fourteen years. Since 1959, it has been about twenty-five years. Current Justices have served longer. Clarence Thomas has been serving for twenty-nine years and Stephen Breyer for twenty-six. Chief Justice Roberts and Samuel Alito have been on the Court for fifteen years while the other Justices have been sitting for shorter periods.
That eighteen-year period could also lead to an expanded pool of people to be considered for a nomination. Wanting to leave as long a legacy on the Supreme Court as possible, presidents today are not likely to appoint someone who is sixty or older. God forbid, that person might be on the Court for a mere twenty years! Find someone who is younger and expect a tenure of thirty or more years. Thus, Amy Coney Barrett, the last person appointed to the Supreme Court, went on the bench when she was forty-eight and her two immediate predecessors on the Court, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, were fifty-three and forty-nine, respectively. Fifty-five is the oldest age at which any of the present Supreme Court Justices was appointed, and Clarence Thomas was only forty-three. Knowing, however, that the most active period of judging will be “only” eighteen years, a president can consider a wider range of age and experience for a nominee.
Giving every president an appointment every two years may also reduce the partisanship of the Supreme Court and certainly should reduce the perception of partisanship. Currently it is mere chance that determines how many, if any, nominations the chief executive will have. Some presidents have a greater opportunity to pack the court with ideological bedfellows than others. With this reform all presidents would be treated equally. The appointments might be just as partisan as now, but the partisanship is more likely to be balanced and in sync with “the people” as we elect presidents.
The partisan games we have just witnessed during which the Senate denied a consideration of Merrick Garland but forced through the confirmation of Barrett would end. Such maneuvers that strengthen the notion that the Court is not a neutral body might end. Similarly, the present situation calling for the resignation of Justice Breyer so that “our side” can appoint a younger person, which also tends to treat the Court as just another partisan body, should disappear.
This reform should not put be into place immediately. Of course, Republicans would oppose it if it gave Biden two appointments in the next four years. Instead, it should start after the next presidential election with the newly-elected president getting his/her first appointment on July 1, 2025, and one every two years thereafter. Perhaps this might even lead to a more information-driven presidential campaign with candidates, knowing they will have two and only two nominations, revealing to the electorate who those candidates might be.
I am sure there are downsides to this proposal, but would it really be bad to treat all presidents equally? And why is it bad if unelected Justices decided cases for “only” eighteen years when most Justices before 1960 did not serve that long?