On Fixing the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court being in the (bad) news, someone posted a link to a forthcoming article in the California Law Review. The article, “Democratizing the Supreme Court”, is 71 pages long. Below are 2 1/2 pages of excerpts. I think they’re interesting. 

Before getting to that, however, I want to point out that the effort to defang the Electoral College is further along than most people realize. This is good news:

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Compact ensures that every vote, in every state, will matter in every presidential election. The Compact is a state-based approach that preserves the Electoral College, state control of elections, and the power of the states to control how the President is elected.

The National Popular Vote bill has been enacted by 16 jurisdictions possessing 196 electoral votes, including 4 small states (DE, HI, RI, VT), 8 medium-sized states (CO, CT, MD, MA, NJ, NM, OR, WA), 3 big states (CA, IL, NY), and the District of Columbia. The bill will take effect when enacted by states with 74 more electoral votes.  The bill has passed at least one chamber in 9 additional states with 88 more electoral votes (AR, AZ, ME, MI, MN, NC, NV, OK, VA).

Ok, back to the Supreme Court:

Supreme Court reform is on the progressive agenda, but the debate about how to conceptualize and therefore to pursue it has barely begun. . . . Though only in early stages, our era’s discussion now risks brevity and error. Historical memories have favored “court-packing” or personnel expansion of the institution as practically the only imaginable reform. . . .

The basic purpose of this article is to counteract this risk. It reconsiders the criteria of reform, not with the assumption that the goal is re-legitimating the Supreme Court, but with the necessity of progressive transformation of the country in mind. . . .

This article [compares and contrasts] the widest range of imaginable statutory reforms under our current constitutional regime. These include balancing the Supreme Court between parties, turning to expert or merit selection, using lotteries to compose decision-making panels from larger pools, passing jurisdiction stripping statutes (potentially ones introducing alternative executive branch adjudication), institutionalizing higher voting thresholds for judicial decisions, or opening the possibility of their legislative override . . .

The last discussion of Supreme Court reform, climaxing in the emergency of the 1930s, is a cautionary tale more than an inspiring precedent. Formally, Franklin Roosevelt failed in court reform, even while leaving a memory of his own solution—court packing—as if it were the most viable choice now. . . . The lesson of the last reform era for our own is that we must democratize the Supreme Court . . .

The consequence for the discussion of Supreme Court alternatives is straightforward. It must begin with how to diminish the institution’s power in favor of popular majorities. Asking “how to save the Supreme Court” is asking the wrong question. For saving it is not a desirable goal; getting it out of the way of progressive reform is. The New Deal court reform had the chance to counteract the assumption that judicial power is hardwired out of necessity or in principle into American politics, only to see it canonized instead. The entire point of Supreme Court reform ought to be to avoid repeating that mistake . . .

The Supreme Court is not a separate problem from the crisis and deadlock of the American political system, in view of the fact of a rising [liberal] majority abetted by demographic and generational change and more and more open to national renovation. It is part of crisis and deadlock, to be reevaluated rather than restored in its basic functions if progressive reform is to occur. . . .

Progressive activists and scholars have proposed a host of reforms in recent years, from court packing to jurisdiction stripping to term limits. [These] various proposals can . . . be sorted into one of two types. . . . The first type, which we call “personnel” reforms, propose to alter the Supreme Court’s partisan or ideological composition. . . . [They] try to improve our situation by adjusting the Supreme Court’s membership . . . [Since they only deal with] who sits on the bench, personnel reforms take for granted that the Supreme Court wields tremendous policymaking authority. The goal of such reforms is thus, for progressives, to wrest that authority away from conservatives.

By contrast, the second type of proposal, what we call “disempowering” reforms, take aim at what the Supreme Court is permitted to do. Reforms like jurisdiction stripping or supermajority voting rules for judicial review, for example, limit the Supreme Court’s ability to make policy to varying degrees. In so doing, disempowering reforms effectively reassign power away from the judiciary and to the political branches. Unlike their membership analogues, these ‘small-d’ democratic reforms have no obvious ideological valence . . . Partisan advantage would be tied directly—and evenly—to electoral outcomes. Such reforms thus amount to mutual judicial disarmament, lowering the stakes of judicial appointments and increasing (or at least evening) the stakes of congressional and presidential elections. . . .

Many of the personnel reforms . . . try to restore or preserve the Supreme Court’s perceived role as an apolitical decision maker. . . . Immediately, however, this shift from non-ideological to ideological moderation or centrism should set off alarms. Insofar as the Court is supposed to be a neutral arbiter of the law, reforms that conduce to ideological moderation are fundamentally of the wrong type. The neutral arbiter ideal is essentially what Chief Justice Roberts invoked with his in/famous judges as “umpires” metaphor. That image of judging, of course, assumes a sharp distinction between politics and law. . . . [But] it makes no sense to insulate judging from politics by imposing moderate or centrist politics as opposed to politics that are far left or far right. . . .

Few if any would argue that the Supreme Court’s legal analysis goes uninfluenced by willfulness or motivated reasoning. Especially in politically significant cases, the consensus among scholars and other legal observers is that the Supreme Court’s decisions are, to the contrary, driven substantially by ideological commitment. . . . To impose a moderate or centrist ideology is not to remove ideology from the equation. Just as those on the far left or the far right are susceptible to motivated reasoning or willfulness, those in the political center have substantive preferences that can lead them astray if those preferences do not align with the law. Put more simply, it is hard to see how merely changing the Court’s ideology would make the Court less ideologically motivated. . . . [I think the idea is that moderate or centrists are less ideological, so having more of them on the court would reduce the effect of ideology on the Court’s decisions.]

The push for democratic legitimacy starts from the observation that much of the Supreme Court’s work is inherently political. Especially in constitutional cases, many of the claims the Court is asked to evaluate are legally underdetermined or, at a minimum, epistemically opaque. As a result, Supreme Court justices inevitably rely upon policy inclinations in deciding what the Constitution requires or permits. The question for small-d democratic reformers, then, is how to reconcile the ideological nature of these determinations with a commitment to democratic self-rule. For proponents of disempowering reforms, the way to address the apparent tension is to redirect decision-making authority away from the democratically unaccountable judiciary and toward the political branches. . . .

Among personnel reforms, court packing is probably the most uncontroversially legal. . . . The number of seats on the Supreme Court has been set since its inception by statute and Congress has adjusted the size of the Court – from six to seven, to nine, to ten, back to nine – numerous times.This longstanding congressional practice couples with relative constitutional textual silence. While Article III assumes the existence of a Supreme Court and Article I, section 3, that there will be a Chief Justice, nothing else in the text seems to bear on how large or small the Court must be. . . . After court packing, the legality of personnel reforms gets murkier. . . .

Disempowering reforms are also contestable, legally speaking. Jurisdiction stripping is perhaps the most aggressive reform and famously raises numerous constitutional questions—questions that become more difficult the more comprehensive the strip. In particular, the Supreme Court has remarked repeatedly that “serious” concerns “would arise if a federal statute were construed to deny any judicial forum for a colorable constitutional claim.” Such worries apply to specific constitutional issues, let alone to broad categories of claims.

Despite this controversy, stripping courts of jurisdiction, even over constitutional challenges, has strong textual footing. As numerous scholars have observed, Article III’s grant of authority to Congress to “make … Exceptions” to the Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction while at the same time placing the existing of “inferior” federal courts entirely within congressional control suggests that Congress enjoys sweeping authority concerning which cases federal courts are permitted to hear. And as to state courts, both the Supremacy Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause appear to provide Congress substantial discretion there as well. Taken together, Christopher Sprigman argues that these features indicate the Constitution “gives to Congress the power to choose whether it must answer, in a particular instance, to judges or to voters,” relying in some instances on political rather than judicial checks to enforce constitutional constraints. . . .

Court reform is a debate about both means and ends. The conventional prevailing view is that we should use non-neutral means of reform that correct distortions in membership on the bench in order to achieve the neutral end of an apolitical Supreme Court. In opposition to this view, our argument has favored the neutral means of democratization—which shifts power to whoever wins elections to determine the fate of the country—as the most plausible way to achieve non-neutral ends.

Of course, somebody else than progressives could win those elections, and constitute the political majorities to come. But if right-wing nationalists win, the country is already lost. And if a centrist coalition in either party prevails, they establish the outcome many court reformers hope to achieve through personnel reforms.

But the rightist and centrist outcomes are not the only possibilities. If a progressive coalition wins, it could take advantage of the power reassigned from the Court to allow politics to redeem the country—something that no court, let alone our Supreme Court, will ever do.

I Can’t Think of a Title

February 13, 2016: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell said in a statement released after Scalia’s death. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

February 23, 2016: “I can now confidently say the view shared by virtually everybody in my conference, is that the nomination should be made by the president the people elect in the election that’s underway right now” McConnell told reporters [although there was no election underway in February] . . . I believe the overwhelming view of the Republican Conference in the Senate is that this nomination should not be filled, this vacancy should not be filled by this lame duck president…The American people are perfectly capable of having their say on this issue, so let’s give them a voice. Let’s let the American people decide.” 

May 28, 2019: An attendee at a Chamber of Commerce event in Kentucky asks McConnell, “Should a Supreme Court justice die next year, what will your position be on filling that spot?” “Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell replied, grinning.

September 18, 2020: “President Txxxx’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” McConnell said in a statement on Friday evening [without even waiting until the next day].

We know how unique the president is and that Senator McConnell’s only motivation is power. Are there four Republican senators who will choose to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s memory, if only for their own selfish reasons? I doubt it.

David Frum, however, a conservative anti-Txxxx commentator, doesn’t think this is a done deal. He suggests that:

(1) Some Republican senators behind in the polls may see this as an opportunity to look independent and win re-election. Others may have a reason (personal honor, a previous strongly-stated position) not to go along with McConnell.

(2) It may be difficult to find a nominee, given how much criticism they’ll receive, especially if they aren’t guaranteed approval in the Senate.

(3) Nominating a replacement before the election will mobilize even more anti-Txxxx voters, so it would be in the president’s interest to wait.

(4) The conservative legal establishment may resist in order to minimize the chance that a Democratic Congress will make much-needed, pro-democracy reforms to the Supreme Court.

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times discusses some of the same considerations and concludes:

If Republicans force a justice on us, it’s because they believe that standards are for suckers, and people who hold power need not be constrained by any pledge or institutional tradition.

According to Ginsburg’s granddaughter, the justice made a dying wish: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

It doesn’t matter how exhausted we are, or how difficult the odds. In this hell-spawned year, we can either give up, or give everything we can to stop some of America’s worst men from blotting out the legacy of one of our very best women.

How It Is and How It Got This Way (26 Days)

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Our new Supreme Court Justice, Bart O’Kavanaugh, the noted liar, aka the Keg Meister, took a hard line in his first appearance with the court. He said an immigrant who committed a minor crime thirty years ago and did his time is still subject to being locked up. Even his right-wing colleague, Neil Gorsuch, didn’t go that far:

The question in the case was whether the federal authorities must detain immigrants who had committed crimes, often minor ones, no matter how long ago they were released from criminal custody. Justice Kavanaugh said a 1996 federal law required detention even years later, without an opportunity for a bail hearing.

“What was really going through Congress’s mind in 1996 was harshness on this topic,” he said.

But Justice Gorsuch suggested that mandatory detentions of immigrants long after they completed their sentences could be problematic. “Is there any limit on the government’s power?” he asked.

Now we know O’Kavanaugh will take bad behavior seriously even if it happened thirty years ago, as long as it allows him to make life difficult for an immigrant. 

For more ugly truths about the Supreme Court, “How It Is and How It Got This Way (27 Days)”, go here:  An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought.

How It Is and How It Got This Way (27 Days)

Most of us tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. We expect the average person to behave properly. Not perfectly, but generally to follow the rules of society. To help those in distress, to keep promises, to tell the truth. That’s why we’re willing to ask people for help instead of fearing they’ll take advantage of us. It’s why we take promises seriously. It’s why we pay attention to what other people say.

Then something like the Kavanaugh nomination comes along. Even after we’ve been exposed to dirty politics repeatedly, we still find it hard to believe that people — such as members of the Senate — who claim to value truth and justice — especially people who are viewed as “moderates” — will ignore those values. Some do rise to the occasion. Too often, we’re disappointed once again.

I kept hoping that two or more Republican senators would vote “no”. It’s still hard to believe that only one decided not to vote “yes”. I’m not crazy, so I wasn’t sure we would win. But I still thought there was a possibility as various Republicans expressed their “concerns”. I thought maybe they’d give each other courage. 

It’s still hard to accept that some politicians lie and otherwise practice bad faith so easily and so frequently. I blogged about a long article a few days ago that helped me understand how they’re able to justify their behavior to themselves:

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are … a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

Why shouldn’t you lie in order to put the members of your group in power? Since the people on your side or in your group deserve to be in charge and make the important decisions, why shouldn’t you lie in order to get on the Supreme Court? Or vote “yes” to put that liar on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life?

Garrett Epps writes a “Requiem for the Supreme Court”:

[The Supreme Court’s] decisions were [often] controversial. Many people considered many of them wrong. But this was the nation’s Court; its decisions were rooted in the Constitution and in a shared interest in national unity.

Throughout all of this, Democratic and Republican appointees on the Court clashed, crossed, and formed coalitions. Neither those who praised it nor those who cursed it regarded the Court as the instrument of party politics.

But that idea began to fray…

One party made the Supreme Court a partisan issue. First Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan made attacks on the Court part of Republican Party dogma….But I think no fair-minded person could deny that a major barrier was crossed in 1991 when a Republican president, for political reasons, appointed a justice [Clarence Thomas] who was manifestly unqualified for the office, and who faced numerous, credible claims of sexual misbehavior as a government official. It was hard to watch the nominee testify in October 1991 without concluding that Anita Hill had told the truth and that Thomas had lied. But the administration pushed ahead regardless. This was the first major step over a dangerous threshold.

The next step came in 2000, when five Republican appointees on the Court extended its authority to decide a national election, in defiance of federal statutes, the Constitution’s text, and their own frequently expressed pieties about “our federalism.” The Court has aggressively made itself part of partisan politics, but even then, some of the justices who dissented were Republican appointees.

Partisanship sputtered for the next decade and a half. John Roberts was confirmed as chief justice with the votes of 22 Democrats––half of the party’s Senate caucus. Samuel Alito was the object of an attempted filibuster by Democrats, but was still confirmed with four Democratic votes. Sonia Sotomayor won nine Republican votes; Elena Kagan got five Republican votes and lost one Democratic vote. Justice Anthony Kennedy continued to move back and forth within the Court across partisan lines.

As the new Court settled in, people began to wonder whether the wounds of 2000 might be closing.

Then, in 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died.

President Barack Obama, facing a Republican Senate, carefully nominated a moderate whom even Senator Orrin Hatch had previously designated as acceptable to both sides. But then the rules changed. Scalia’s seat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, would not be filled, no matter what. Republicans had a majority in the Senate and could use it for any purpose they wished—including making the Supreme Court seat a plum partisan patronage job to be filled after the next presidential election. Republican nominee Donald Trump assured Republican voters that he would appoint justices who would “automatically” overturn Roe v. Wade. To make this clearer, he released a short list of nominees, in effect putting their names on the presidential ballot beside his. Another threshold was crossed: a Court seat was a partisan prize, its holders subject to popular vote.

That brings us to the last few weeks in Washington, when the Senate Judiciary Committee met under the pretext that it would listen to testimony from an ordinary American, Christine Blasey Ford….The debate and the vote that followed were not about the Court, not about the law; they were about the Republican Party. They were about teaching the rest of us that we cannot refuse what Trump and McConnell want. They were a demonstration that in the new order there is no individual, no norm, no institution not subject to the control of the ruling party.

Brian Beutler analyzes “The Trumpification of the Supreme Court”:

Even before he stood accused of sexual assault, Kavanaugh was a totem for the forces of dishonesty and bad faith, angling to deceive his way into power by hiding and lying about his career and his agenda.

Kavanaugh has been systematically misleading the Senate since 2004. Rather than own up to his history as a partisan activist lawyer, he disguised his life’s work with spin and outright lies. He disclaimed his role, as an associate White House counsel, in helping to confirm some of the most controversial circuit court judges on the bench. He feigned ignorance of the lawless torture and warrantless wiretapping policies of the Bush administration, and then counted on Republicans in the Senate and the White House to conceal his complete record. He knowingly trafficked in stolen Senate Democratic records to help coach Bush judicial nominees, and then lied about it, concocting the flimsiest of excuses, and offering the Democrats whose documents were stolen not a single word of remorse.

Despite this background, he laughably insisted to the Senate in 2004 that his “background has not been in partisan politics.”

Kavanugh’s appointment is thus an extension of Trump’s contempt for U.S. governing institutions as anything other than instruments of raw partisan power.

Erwin Chemerinsky describes “A Very Tarnished Court”:

Conservatives [have fulfilled] a quest that began with Richard Nixon’s campaign for president in 1968 and intensified during Ronald Reagan’s presidency: putting a staunch conservative majority on the Supreme Court. But the way that they have accomplished this has greatly tarnished the Court, perhaps irreparably. It is impossible to know the long-term consequences of this, but the Court and how it is perceived will never be the same.

….This will [be] the most conservative Court since the mid-1930s, with five justices at the far right of the political spectrum. No longer will there be Republican appointees like John Paul Stevens or David Souter, or even a moderate conservative like Lewis Powell, Sandra Day O’Connor or Anthony Kennedy.

What is stunning is that each of the five conservative justices—Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh—came on to the Court in a manner that lacks legitimacy. Each is a disturbing story, but even worse, cumulatively they make it clear that the current Court is little more than an extension of Republican power plays in a way that never has occurred in American history.

He then recounts the ugly events that put Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch and now Kavanaugh on the court. He concludes:

Any one of these events would be a hit on the Court’s legitimacy. But to have the entire majority of the Court there only because of shameful behavior inevitably will tarnish the Court.

It is unclear at this moment how it will matter that the Court will be clearly perceived as an extension of the Republican Party. Maybe it will lead to a crisis of legitimacy for the Court, as occurred in the mid-1930s. Perhaps at some point it will lead to open defiance of the Court. Maybe it will cause the Democrats to try to increase the size of the Court if they have control of the presidency and Congress after the November 2020 elections. [Note: the Constitution doesn’t say the Court should have nine members. It had 10 in 1863.]

The only thing that is certain is that conservatives will gain control of the Court as they have long desired—in the process, irreparably hurting the institution by the way they have accomplished this.

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. It also grows from the ideas of defunct economists. In the United States, for now, it still grows out of ballots cast and properly counted. 

The next election is 27 days away.