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.

Should Supreme Court Justices have to ride circuit?

That is the proposal advanced by Kyle Sammin at The Federalist. Sammin recognizes the folly of term limits for Supreme Court Justices, which would require the practical impossibility of a constitutional amendment. Instead, he suggests that we might promote more frequent turnover by requiring Justices to once again “ride circuit” — the 18th and 19th century practice of having Justices travel across the country to hear more ordinary cases during breaks in the Court’s regular term. Sammin states:

Restoring circuit duties to the Supreme Court would provide a natural way of decreasing tenure on the bench. Travel is not as difficult in 2019 as it was in 1819, but it can still be exhausting. If circuit riding had still been a part of the job, infirm justices such as William O. Douglas, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens would have left the bench before they were fully in decline. Ginsburg would likely have retired a decade ago, as many on the left wish she had. Instead, arrogance and ease lead to justices remaining in their jobs when they are not up to the tasks appointed to them.

I am intrigued by this proposal, although I am not as optimistic that the additional travel burden would put off any but the most frail Justices. The Court’s current members — even those well into their eighties — are already frequent travelers. They speak at law schools, promote their books, accept cozy summer teaching positions, and so on. Open Secrets, for example, found that in 2018 the Justices collectively took 64 trips that were paid for by others. Justice Ginsburg alone took a dozen trips to far-flung places around the world. And even though riding circuit would involve real judicial work rather that quasi-legal junkets, it seems fair to say that all the Justices truly enjoy their day jobs.

What do you think, readers?

Massachusetts dallies with, and rejects, judicial term limits

My colleague Lawrence Freidman — a sometime guest contributor to this blog — praises the decision here:

The measure the Committee rejected proposed amending the state constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years by the governor’s council. In an interview with The Lowell Sun, the author of the “Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution Relative to the Term of Judicial Officers,” Representative Tom Golden, stated that the goal was judicial accountability, particularly for those judges “who consistently make poor legal decisions. 

There are two problems with this justification. First, it is far from clear that there ever could be universal agreement – or even agreement among the members of the Governor’s Council – as to the definition of a “poor legal decision.” It is a fact that, in every civil and criminal case, one party is bound to be disappointed by some judicial ruling, whether it concerned scheduling, procedural mattersor the admissibility of evidence—not to mention the end result. In other words, decrying a “poor legal decision” is in many instances another way of saying you simply do not agree with that particular decision. 

This is not to say that judges are infallible, or that no judicial decision can be deemed objectively wrong. But this leads to the second problem with the proposal: the notion that the only effective form of accountability is one that involves the democratic removal of constitutional officers from their posts.

Read the whole thing!

Update on state legislation affecting the courts

State legislatures continue to propose and advance bills that will impact their respective court systems.  Here are some of the latest developments:

  • Indiana’s proposal to convert Marion County (Indianapolis) to a merit selection system is heading to conference committee.  The latest version of the bill calls for a 14-member nominating committee to choose three final candidates for the governor’s selection; four of the committee members would be chosen from voters.  Previous coverage of the Indiana bill and its history is here.
  • In Arkansas, a new bill would change the way state judges are elected in Cumberland County Superior Court.  The current election system grants seats on the bench to the top two vote-getters among all candidates.  The bill would require candidates to declare which of the two judicial seats they are seeking.
  • The Florida House of Representatives has passed an amendment to the state constitution that would impose term limits on state appellate judges, including supreme court justices.  This is a terrible idea, but happily it is still in its infancy.  The state senate would also have to approve the move, and then voters would have to approve it in 2018.  Similar efforts in others states have been defeated in recent years after they were exposed for the transparent political proposals that they were.
  • Nebraska’s unicameral legislature has advanced a bill to raise judicial pay in the state.