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.

Turley on court packing

Jonathan Turley has been a voice for sanity among legal commentators during the tumultuous past year. His new op-ed at The Hill, which looks at the dangers and irony of Democrats’ court-lacking schemes, continues his tradition of strong and reasonable analysis. A snippet:

For the scheme to pack the Supreme Court proposed by Kamala Harris and others to work, there must be some kind of litmus test. Democrats have pledged to add new justices to ensure a bench that will vote to uphold or overturn cases as desired. Absent such promises, the scheme is a futile exercise. The whole point is to force outcomes like voting to uphold Roe. This rationale has reached truly dystopian levels, with former White House counsel John Dean insisting that, by creating a new ideological majority, Democrats would remove politics from the Supreme Court.

Litmus tests and the idea to pack the bench would not honor Ginsburg. They would instead destroy the Supreme Court she loved. It would obliterate an institution that has preserved the stability and continuity of our country. The Supreme Court has performed this vital role based on its legitimacy and authority with Americans that will evaporate if Democrats conduct litmus tests or pack the bench.

The whole article is well worth the read.

The mortifying state of our Supreme Court confirmation politics

The first of a series of posts about the politics of filling the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

So here we are, not even five years removed from the embarrassing political melee that followed the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the same movie is playing out in even more absurd fashion.

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is working the Republican back benches to ensure a yes vote for the President’s Supreme Court nominee — never mind that there is, as of yet, no nominee to vote on. This is the same Senator McConnell who refused to even hold a hearing for then-nominee Merrick Garland in 2016 on the flimsy pretext that it was too late into a election year. To call McConnell’s reversal hypocritical is an insult to hypocrisy.

Remarkably, the Democrats have acquitted themselves even more poorly. After hectoring the American public in 2016 with the smug insistence that the Senate must vote on the Garland nomination (using the Twitter hashtag #DoYourJob), and after four years of accusing the Republicans of “stealing” the seat by not holding a hearing for Garland, the Democrats now declare —with no apparent sense of irony — that they will do everything possible to prevent a vote on the as-yet-unnamed nominee. The charge has been led, most distressingly, by the Democrats’ own Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who previously pledged to shirk her Senate duties by refusing in advance to vote for any Trump appellate court nominee, and who now promises an extended vacancy crisis in connection with her efforts to raise campaign funds

How did we get here? Continue reading “The mortifying state of our Supreme Court confirmation politics”

On reforming the Supreme Court

Russell Wheeler at the Brookings Institution has taken a detailed look at the various proposals to reform the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, from court-packing to term limits. He provides a short history of each proposal (including potential legal stumbling blocks). Most importantly, he determines that at this time, the American public has no real taste for Supreme Court reform — the most significant stumbling block for any court proposal.

Wheeler concludes:

That reasonable people are even debating these proposals speaks to the degradation of the federal judicial appointment process at all levels, a decline that has been building steam for several decades. The once near-ministerial task of appointing and confirming federal judges has stretched from one or two months into sometimes year-long ordeals, even for non-controversial nominees.

Both parties have undermined the guard rails that that once pushed presidents and senators to seek judicial candidates within some broad mainstream of ideological boundaries, even allowing for occasional outliers. Democrats killed the filibuster for most nominees, and Republicans finished it off for Supreme Court candidates and, to boot, ended the home-state senator (of either party) veto of circuit nominees that Republican senators exploited relentlessly to block Obama administration appointees.

Pack-the-court proposals that would normally seem bizarre are understandable in today’s partisan climate. If the federal judiciary becomes a 21st century version of the 1930s judiciary that thwarted a popular push for change, they may even become necessary.

I don’t think we are anywhere near that level, despite the hysteria created by left-leaning partisans and academics. While Republican presidents have appointed more Justices, and while the justices serve longer, on average, than they ever did before, the leftward policy drift of many Republican appointees over time tends to keep the Court much more balanced than it might seem at the time of a Justice’s confirmation.

The battle over the Court is, in my mind, partially a spillover from the current partisan battles in the other branches and partially a reaction to the Republican Party’s successful focus on judicial appointments since the Reagan administration. When bipartisanship in Congress has eroded as badly as it has, it seems inevitable that both parties will seek to punish each other to the extent they can in the realm of judicial nominations. And the undeniable success of Republican administrations in populating the federal courts over the past forty years has left Democrats in a state of agitation, bordering on desperation.

I do not know if and when some sense of bipartisan responsibility and decorum will return to Congress. But until then, radical proposals to reform the Court are likely to constitute ongoing collateral damage.

Wheeler on the public and the federal judiciary

Liberals frustrated with the current direction of the U.S. Supreme Court have initiated another round of Court-packing schemes. These proposals are nothing more than sound and fury for an agitated left-of-center base, but Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institute offers a typically insightful and sober analysis on a possible disconnect between the Court and the public, and what might result after 2020. It’s well worth the read.

Michael Reed on judicial independence: “an essential American value”

The latest essay in the ABA series on judicial independence comes from Pennsylvania attorney Michael Reed, who discusses efforts to remove or isolate judges for political reasons.  His short essay ranges from the Court-packing scheme of the 1930s to the current attempt to impeach justices in Pennsylvania.