Making the Supreme Court More (Small “d”) Democratic

The fundamental objection to the Supreme Court’s powers . . . is that no one concerned to establish a democratic state would bestow on nine judges, appointed for life at the whim of the pre­sident, powers to determine society’s governing norms.

That’s from an Oxford fellow’s London Review of Books article about America’s Supreme Court, which now includes six Republicans (five of whom are Catholics) and three Democrats (one of whom is). The article continues:

Some progressives have begun to argue that the court’s problems can be fixed only if its powers are reduced. One possibility would be to introduce term limits for judges. This, though, wouldn’t limit their powers.

But the Constitution says federal judges “shall hold their offices during good behaviour”. That seems to mean term limits would require a constitutional amendment, which would be unlikely to pass when the Court is so unbalanced. Republicans wouldn’t agree to give up their big advantage.

Another suggestion is to change the voting rules on the court. Continental legal systems often require unanimity among the judges in all decisions. In the US, if the justices were unable to reach unanimous agreement, the lower court’s decision would be upheld. This already happens when an equal number of justices are in favour of and opposed to a ruling: the court can divide equally when . . . there are only eight members on the court, or when a justice recuses him or herself. A unanimity rule would not deprive the court of all its powers: between 1946 and 2009, 41 per cent of decisions were unanimous.

There is nothing in the Constitution that says how many votes are required for the Supreme Court to make a decision, so requiring a unanimous vote would merely require a new law, not a constitutional amendment. A Democratic president and Democratic Congress could easily make that happen, assuming a Democratic Senate got rid of the filibuster.

But it would mean that a single ideologue could exercise an outsized effect on individual decisions.

Some scholars propose a super-majority requirement, permitting one or two dissenters. That deprives the lone ideologue of ransom power, but it is also a conservative measure, entrenching the court’s existing decisions; the more controversial may never be overturned.

The proposal often mentioned is to enlarge the Court (so-called “court packing”). Congress and the President could add three Democrats, for example, creating a 12-member Court split evenly between the parties.

. . . When Franklin Roosevelt sought to pass progressive legislation during the Great Depression, the Supreme Court stymied his efforts by striking down key parts of the New Deal. In response, he resolved to appoint as many as six new justices. Roosevelt, for all his skills, was unable to get the measure through the Senate (though the court was chastened by his efforts). Pete Buttigieg revived the idea in his run for president, proposing an expansion from nine to 15 judges. There is no principled reason to settle on nine as the appropriate number of justices; the court initially had six, once had ten, and other Supreme Courts around the world often have more.

The author of the Guardian article thinks adding justices would be inadequate:

But ‘packing’ the court, even if it were politically feasible, still doesn’t address the problem of how to limit its powers. That said, the political confrontation it would generate might cause the justices to reconsider their attitudes to those powers. That would be no bad thing.

Chief Justice Roberts is apparently concerned that the Court’s right-wing activism may sometimes go too far. But depending on him or other justices to refrain from using all their power to carry out the Republican agenda is wishful thinking. Rather than waiting for the Republican majority to restrain itself, Congress should limit the Court’s powers. A University of Chicago law professor explained how last month in The Washington Post:

A new Democratic Congress could, for example, impose by ordinary statute a limit on the Supreme Court’s authority to declare federal legislation unconstitutional, permitting it to do so only by supermajority (say, 7-2) rather than the usual 5-4. In so doing, Congress would be using the same power it does to dictate how many justices constitute a quorum. This reform would implement, via voting rule, the sort of “clear error” approach to judicial review imagined by Harvard professor James Bradley Thayer in the late 1800s. Such a rule would permit a judicial veto in cases of uncontroversial constitutional violation (for example, an effort to reintroduce de jure segregation of schools or criminalizing the speech of political opponents) but otherwise require the court to stay its hand.

Alternatively, Congress and the president might (again by ordinary statute) “strip” the court of jurisdiction over constitutional challenges to specific legislation — the Green New Deal, for example, or HR1, the sweeping set of reforms first approved by the Democratic House in 2019 that includes establishing automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday and ending partisan gerrymandering. (It could also strip its jurisdiction over whole areas of law, such as climate legislation). Here, Congress would be making use of its Article III power to decide what kinds of cases the Supreme Court may hear on appeal — the court has constitutionally mandated jurisdiction only over disputes between states and the like — as well as its authority to decide whether lower federal courts exist at all, and so what cases they are permitted to hear.

. . . The exact scope of Congress’s ability to strip jurisdiction remains controversial, and a recalcitrant court might resist. This is a situation in which additional sympathetic justices recently added to the court might be helpful; court packing, in other words, might pave the way for additional reforms. Whatever stance the court takes, the limits Congress may impose is a question that careful attention to the Constitution is unlikely to answer; rather, as with most of these disputes, the resolution would ultimately be political, as opposed to legal, with the political and judicial branches left to hash out a new status quo. As former dean of Stanford Law School Larry Kramer has observed: “The Constitution leaves room for countless political responses to an overreaching court” — including judicial impeachment, slashing the court’s budget, giving the justices onerous responsibilities or simply ignoring the court, as did Lincoln, after the Dred Scott case.

Conservatives made similar efforts at limiting the court’s authority in the 1970s and 1980s (backed by legal arguments from a young [John] Roberts, working as an attorney at the Department of Justice) — repeatedly introducing legislation to limit federal courts’ ability to adjudicate contentious cultural issues such as abortion and school prayer — and have made similar efforts since. Those efforts failed, in part because of a lack of support in the Senate, but one can imagine that a Democratic-controlled Senate might be exceptionally motivated to protect its potential legislative accomplishments from a hostile judiciary.

Given Republican rhetoric about unduly powerful courts, there’s a chance that at least some conservatives may embrace the cause of judicial disarmament (especially if liberal court-packing is the alternative). For both parties, of course, going down such a path would increase the stakes for who controls the political branches. Both sides would have to ratchet down the expectation that the Supreme Court would annul popular laws that they find distasteful — whether that means (on the right) a statute phasing out fossil fuel production or (on the left) a federal ban on affirmative action in higher education. In a democracy, however, that is exactly how things should be.

Unquote.

Seven days.