Stitching a New Nine this Time

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.

(Concluded April 30)