Late in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, as Mitch McConnell rushed to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Amy Coney Barrett, the left began pushing Joe Biden to endorse adding seats to the Supreme Court. Biden, in response, did what politicians do when faced with an issue they don’t want to think about: He promised to create a commission to study the issue.
That commission submitted its report in December 2021, and as far as I can tell, Biden’s lack of interest has been confirmed. For all the fury at the Supreme Court in recent weeks, the Biden administration doesn’t seem to have mentioned the report or any of the options it raised. Perhaps that’s just an admission of political reality. Democrats don’t have the votes to change the court.
But the Biden administration needs to change political reality, not just accept it….. One such [response] might be a plan to repair the court — one that goes beyond restoring Roe v. Wade and demonstrates a deeper vision for reimagining America’s political system in an era of crisis….
The commission’s report doesn’t endorse any particular plan. Instead, over nearly 300 pages, it considers several plans and airs the arguments for and against them. At times it’s pathologically evenhanded, bordering on naïve….But in total, the report is a thorough … tour through ways the court could be restructured….
In Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the judiciary has “… neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment”. The debate over the Supreme Court tends to revolve around the word “legitimacy.” The fear is that the court will lose its legitimacy, whatever that means. But the word Hamilton uses is more interesting: judgment.
I take the problem with the current Supreme Court to be that there’s no reason to trust its judgment, and many reasons to mistrust it. The process for picking appointees is thoroughly politicized. The process by which seats come open and the court is refreshed is thoroughly politicized, save when death intervenes with a justice’s preferred moment of retirement. Critical cases are decided again and again on party-line votes, making a hash of the idea that the court speaks as an institution, on behalf of the Constitution, rather than as nine ideologically predictable political appointees.
As I argued last week, the court — like the rest of our political system — wasn’t designed for an era of polarized political parties. It is supposed to be a check on the other branches, not an amplifier of the power the parties wield across them. Its problem is a mismatch between the political system for which it was designed and the political system we actually have. And so the question is, what might the court look like if it were designed for this era? What reforms would make the court’s judgment more, rather than less, trustworthy?
In my view, court packing, the idea that arguably launched the commission, fails that test…. You can’t fix the court by adding justices. You’re shifting the balance of power by contributing to the underlying problem: turning the court into an untrustworthy institution and setting off a cycle of reprisals with unknown consequences…. [Note: I disagree. This is an emergency. If the Democrats in Washington wanted to, they could add four justices to match the number of federal circuit courts. There used to be nine circuits. Now there are thirteen. Then let the Democrats propose a way to make the court more balanced in the future. See below.]
Let’s start with the easy one: term limits. Lifetime appointment did not mean, for most of American history, what it means today. The commission notes that until the 1960s, the average length of service on the court was 15 years. Now it’s 26 years — and perhaps rising. As the partisan stakes of Supreme Court nominations have sharpened, life span has become one more variable to game: Parties are looking for the youngest justices they can credibly pick in order to ensure their nominees hold power far into the future.
Worse, because justices retire strategically, power in the court now builds power in the court later. As the commission notes, Trump “appointed three Justices in his single four-year term; his immediate Democratic predecessors, Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, made only four appointments total in a combined twenty years in office.” Lifetime appointments were intended to insulate the justices from politics. Instead, they have become a driver of the court’s politicization.
Limiting justices to 18-year terms has collected a fair amount of bipartisan support over the years…. When the National Constitution Center convened separate groups of liberal and conservative legal scholars to consider court reform, both ended up proposing 18-year terms. It also has the force of international practice behind it. This, from the report, is worth reflecting on:
The United States is the only major constitutional democracy in the world that has neither a retirement age nor a fixed term limit for its high court Justices…. In light of this contrast, one scholar who testified before the Commission opined that, “were we writing the United States Constitution anew, there is no way we would adopt the particular institutional structure that we have for judicial tenure. No other country has true lifetime tenure for its justices, and for good reason.”
… Eighteen-year terms would mean, over time, that presidents could expect two appointments per term. A two-term presidency would see four appointments — … enough to make sure the court doesn’t fall too far out of step with the American people. It would also lower the stakes on any one vacancy or any one decision, because vacancies would become predictable and commonplace.
But there’s also a need to depoliticize the court and protect it from politics. It now seems unlikely that vacant seats can ever be filled when the White House and the Senate are controlled by opposing parties … [No, the evidence is that would only happen if Republicans controlled the Senate, like they did in 2015. As Mr. Klein adds parenthetically…] (In case you thought Merrick Garland a one-off, McConnell has already said it’s “highly unlikely” he’d let Biden fill a Supreme Court seat if Republicans retake the Senate in 2022.)
But the commission has an interesting idea for that. If the Senate fails to act on, or otherwise confirm, two Supreme Court nominees in a set amount of time, the deadlock could trigger a new process in which the chief judges of the federal Courts of Appeals would vote on the next nominee….
More radical is the idea for a “balanced bench.” The commission does not discuss this idea at any length… The balanced bench is a proposal by Daniel Epps and Ganesh Sitaraman, both law professors, to divvy up Supreme Court seats in a new way: Both parties would get five justices, and then those 10 justices would be called upon to unanimously or near-unanimously agree on another five justices.
The merits of the balanced bench proposal are perfectly, if accidentally, encapsulated in the commission’s critique of the idea:
An explicit requirement that Justices be affiliated with particular parties would constrain the pool of potential nominees and reinforce the notion that Justices are partisan actors….This close identification of Justices with political party could undermine the perception of judicial independence, which is important to the acceptance of and compliance with the Court’s decisions.
Yes, it would be a shame to reinforce the accurate perception that Supreme Court nominees, chosen by political parties, extensively vetted for ideological reliability, might be, on some level, partisan actors. [This is] extraordinary: Even if it is true that the justices have “ideological motivations,” we must act like it isn’t true, because an accurate understanding of the judiciary might undermine “acceptance of and compliance with” its decisions.
This is an argument for denial, when what we require is a reckoning…. A central question in any political system is how to balance power so all sides have an interest in the system’s continued success. The problem in our system is that we are balancing the power of places rather than parties. The framers believed the politics of states would structure our politics. “Many considerations … seem to place it beyond doubt that the first and most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States,” wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 46. And so the Senate balances the power of states equally, and the [Electoral College] gives rural areas a boost in political representation.
But the framers were wrong. Political parties are our primary political attachments, and that’s been true for decades. Perhaps the Supreme Court should be a place that balances their power rather than another venue through which they compete for dominance.
Taking parties seriously means recognizing who is left out by party competition, too. Many Americans … find themselves utterly unrepresented by the current nominations process. There should be a path to the Supreme Court that does not rely on proving yourself a loyal foot soldier, decade after decade, to the party likeliest to sponsor you, a path that relies on building the best reputation for judgment among peers of all political persuasions. The “balanced bench” idea would create that path, too…. The proposal is a provocative sketch rather than a fully worked-through plan. But provocations are what we need.
We treat the creaking, cracking structure of American government with a strange mix of awe and fatalism; either we think it somehow heretical to question, or we’re so pessimistic about the prospect of change that we don’t even bother. But to dive into the history of court reform, as the commission does, is to be reminded that the Supreme Court was imagined by human minds, and made and remade by human hands. We honor the idea of the American experiment, but we have lost the spirit of experimentation that made it work. We did not discover the ideal structure for the Supreme Court, once and for all, in 1869 [when the number of justices was set to nine]. Our forerunners did their best for the times in which they lived. It is time we did ours.