On Biden, the Court, and what voters “deserve to know”

Joe Biden’s refusal last week to state whether he supports the Court-packing scheme advanced by several prominent members of his own party, and his insistence that voters “don’t deserve” to know where he stands on the issue, has drawn understandable scrutiny. Several commentators have attempted to dissect both the political cynicism behind the proposal and Biden’s strategy for declining to comment on it. (In particular, I recommend the first dozen minutes of this Commentary podcast as well as this op-ed by Gerard Baker in the Wall Street Journal).

I want to focus here on what the kerfuffle means for Biden post-election, since it seems very likely that he will win the Presidency next month. As Baker points out (behind a paywall, unfortunately), “even Mr. Biden—something of a procedural conservative—must be aware how grotesque the idea [of court packing] is. The prospect of a high court turned into an adjunct of the executive and legislative branches, staffed by black-gowned, forelock-tugging accessories to untrammeled political excess, must surely give him pause.”

Baker is right. Biden is too steeped in the Washington politics of the last fifty years to not be a traditionalist on this issue. Indeed, he has had three decades to reveal himself as a disruptor of court structure, both as a high-ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as Vice-President. To be sure, he has spearheaded legislation that has changed court operations, and he bears heavy responsibility for setting the tone of current Supreme Court confirmations with his behavior during the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. But he has nevertheless conducted himself according to the standards of twentieth-century American politics: play hard, and don’t kick the game board over just because you think you’re losing.

The extremists in his party disagree, and are embracing the vision of converting the Court into an arm of the progressive movement by brute political force. This  development should concern all who believe in preserving the delicate balance between court independence and interdependence, and indeed the proposal is playing very poorly with most voters. (Perhaps in a nod to this reality, Biden himself finally stated that he was “not a fan” of court packing in a radio interview on Monday.)

Progressive extremists will certainly put pressure on a Biden Administration to force the court-packing policy into existence, especially if Democrats win the Senate in November.  And of course Biden, like any President, would feel some compulsion to support the legislative agenda from a same-party Congress. But some of the more senior legislative members of his own party recognize the inherent dangers (political and structural) of court-packing, and would likely try to to slow down any movement, especially in the Senate. Moreover, there is no significant reason to believe that his White House would simply be a vessel for extreme progressives. Biden is a wily veteran in Washington. No matter how he may project on the camoaign trail, he surely knows how to wield the levers of power behind closed doors.

Bottom line: A Biden Administration will not support court packing and will try to deemphasize it. Look for Biden to lean on Nancy Pelosi, and others who have been burned by aligning themselves with their intraparty radicals, for assistance in tamping down the extremism. Biden’s position may prove to be a last stand, depending on the growth of the radical progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and court-packing may remain as an issue in 2024. But a lot will happen between now and then, and the short-term likelihood of this terrible policy proposal coming to fruition is probably slimmer than it appears.

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