Joe Biden won’t answer the question about whether he’ll attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court, until the day after the election – so he’s claimed. What is “packing the Court,” and why is it such a terrible idea that even Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned against it?
The Constitution did not specify the number of justices to sit on the Supreme Court. That’s up to Congress. For the past 150 years or so, Congress has maintained that number at 9. An odd number is required, so as to avoid the rather-anti-climactic tie vote. With a 9 member Court, a 5-4 decision, or better, wins the case. With the loss of RBG, the American left loses a crucial vote on the Court, which is why they are threatening to increase the number of justices on the Court, so as to counteract her replacement with Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Thus, if Biden wins, and if Congress is able to increase the number, they could create a left-wing majority on the Court by increasing the number of Democrat-nominated justices.
But the problem with any such plan is, that eventually the other side will return to power and retaliate accordingly. What we then end up with has now become a super-legislature, rather than a Supreme Court, as the Founders intended. Even RBG herself was against Democrats’ 2019 threats to pack the Court:
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in an interview Tuesday that she does not favor proposals put forth by some Democratic presidential candidates who have advocated changing the number of Supreme Court justices if the Democrats win the presidency.
Ginsburg, who got herself in trouble criticizing candidate Donald Trump in 2016, this time was critical not of any particular Democratic contender, but of their proposals to offset President Trump’s two conservative appointments to the court.
“Nine seems to be a good number. It’s been that way for a long time,” she said, adding, “I think it was a bad idea when President Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the court.”https://www.npr.org/2019/07/24/744633713/justice-ginsburg-i-am-very-much-alive
To pull it off, the Democrats would really need to add 4 new liberal members to the Court, which would create a 7-6 majority. Setting long-term retaliation and consequences to the Court aside, the results would be disastrous to the Second Amendment:
A 7-6 progressive majority on the court would very likely overturn decades of precedent that have protected gun owners from both state and federal attempts to deny them their Second Amendment rights. Millions of American gun owners would be subject to these changes and the laws, which Democrats, some of whom are committed to confiscating guns, would impose.5 Major Ways America Will Fundamentally Change If Biden Packs The Court, The Federalist, by David Marcus, Oct. 9, 2020.
Free speech would be nonexistent:
The most obvious change to free speech laws that would come with a progressive majority on the Supreme Court would be the overturning of the 2010 5-4 Citizens United decision….. More broadly, speech laws such as those that exist in New York City requiring people to use preferred pronouns even if they do not believe that gender is mutable, would find a much kinder hearing in the new court.5 Major Ways America Will Fundamentally Change If Biden Packs The Court, The Federalist, by David Marcus, Oct. 9, 2020.
The progressive reading of Roe v. Wade is almost limitless in its scope and perhaps the only question mark would regard the ability to kill babies even after they are outside of the mother. Beyond that, it is very likely that almost any state restrictions would be shot down.5 Major Ways America Will Fundamentally Change If Biden Packs The Court, The Federalist, by David Marcus, Oct. 9, 2020.
Several religious liberty cases such as Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poorhave been closely decided of late. It is safe to assume these decisions would be reversed. Practicing Christians and members of other faiths would face far greater restriction in living their faith in their public life. Our understanding of how we may practice our religions would undergo a major change, abandoning the American tradition of public faith, and limiting religious expression to the church and the home.5 Major Ways America Will Fundamentally Change If Biden Packs The Court, The Federalist, by David Marcus, Oct. 9, 2020.
In all likelihood, a new progressive majority would be open to efforts to abolish the electoral college, to allow statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and to allow voting by people in the country illegally. All of these changes would skew towards the Democrats and could very well result in one-party federal rule of the United States.5 Major Ways America Will Fundamentally Change If Biden Packs The Court, The Federalist, by David Marcus, Oct. 9, 2020.
So what stopped FDR from packing the Supreme Court back in the 1930s? It happened during the Great Depression, when FDR was pushing his socialist New Deal programs, only to have them struck down by the conservative-majority Supreme Court of the early 1930s. President Roosevelt sought to solve the problem sooner, rather than later, so he introduced the “Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937,” commonly referred to as the “court packing plan.” This would have allowed him to appoint up to 6 additional justices to the Court for every justice older than 70.5 years, or who had already served 10 years or more. In reality, a conservative majority had developed on the Court, and like Biden, he was willing to add justices to create his own new majority, consequences be damned:
From the outset of his presidency, FDR had known that four of the justices—Pierce Butler, James McReynolds, George Sutherland and Willis Van Devanter—would vote to invalidate almost all of the New Deal. They were referred to in the press as “the Four Horsemen,” after the allegorical figures of the Apocalypse associated with death and destruction. In the spring of 1935, a fifth justice, Hoover-appointee Owen Roberts—at 60 the youngest man on the Supreme Court—began casting his swing vote with them to create a conservative majority.When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed With the Supreme Court—and Lost, By William E. Leuchtenburg, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005.
FDR indirectly attacked the Court, claiming publicly he was concerned about their age, rather than the ideological point of view of its majority:
FDR recognized, though, that a direct assault on the court must be avoided; he could not simply assert that he wanted judges who would do his bidding. The most promising approach, it seemed, would be to capitalize on the public’s concern about the ages of the justices. At the time of his reelection, it was the most elderly court in the nation’s history, averaging 71 years. Six of the justices were 70 or older; a scurrilous book on the court, The Nine Old Men, by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, was rapidly moving up the bestseller lists.When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed With the Supreme Court—and Lost, By William E. Leuchtenburg, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005.
FDR basically lied about his motivations. Rather than admit to the American people that he was playing politics, and attempting to enact his progressive legislation without interference by the conservative court, he feigned concern over the age of the justices:
“A part of the problem of obtaining a sufficient number of judges to dispose of cases is the capacity of the judges themselves,” the president observed. “This brings forward the question of aged or infirm judges—a subject of delicacy and yet one which requires frank discussion.” He acknowledged that “in exceptional cases,” some judges “retain to an advanced age full mental and physical vigor,” but quickly added, “Those not so fortunate are often unable to perceive their own infirmities.” Life tenure, he asserted, “was not intended to create a static judiciary. A constant and systematic addition of younger blood will vitalize the courts.”When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed With the Supreme Court—and Lost, By William E. Leuchtenburg, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005.
Similar to what would happen in 2020, the result was all-out war between the branches of government, and between the political parties:
While it was never voted on in Congress, the Supreme Court justices went public in their opposition to it. And a majority of the public never supported the bill, either, says Barbara A. Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“Congress and the people viewed FDR’s ill-considered proposal as an undemocratic power grab,” she says. “The chief justice (Charles Evans Hughes) testified before Congress that the Court was up to date in its work, countering Roosevelt’s stated purpose that the old justices needed help with their caseload.”
“It was never realistic that this plan would pass,” Perry says. “Roosevelt badly miscalculated reverence for the Court and its independence from an overreaching president.”This Is How FDR Tried to Pack the Supreme Court, by Lesley Kennedy, Jun 28, 2018.
The battle lasted 168 days. It’s difficult to imagine how it would play out in the era of social media and biased news. But even then, it was ugly:
Roosevelt’s message touched off the greatest struggle in our history among the three branches of government. It also triggered the most intense debate about constitutional issues since the earliest weeks of the Republic. For 168 days, the country was mesmerized by the controversy, which dominated newspaper headlines, radio broadcasts and newsreels, and spurred countless rallies in towns from New England to the PacificCoast. Members of Congress were so deluged by mail that they could not read most of it, let alone respond…..This Is How FDR Tried to Pack the Supreme Court, by Lesley Kennedy, Jun 28, 2018.
At the time, the FDR liberals showed little concern for the Supreme Court as an independent and important branch of government. If other countries could enact these programs, then so should we be able to do so….
If Roosevelt won, opponents warned, he would destroy the independence of the judiciary and create an evil precedent for successors who wished to “pack” the court. If Roosevelt lost, his supporters countered, a few judges appointed for life would be able to ignore the popular will, destroy programs vital to the welfare of the people, and deny to the president and Congress the powers exercised by every other government in the world. Although the country divided evenly on the issue—about as many were for Roosevelt’s plan as against it—the opposition drew far more attention, especially on editorial pages……This Is How FDR Tried to Pack the Supreme Court, by Lesley Kennedy, Jun 28, 2018.
The Bill was ultimately defeated, but FDR still got what he wanted in the end. The historians’ lesson of the affair, as relayed to us in 2005, is perhaps more credible than any we would receive today, in the era of over-politicization of all fields of academia. So pay attention to the parts in bold:
The nasty fight over court packing turned out better than might have been expected. The defeat of the bill meant that the institutional integrity of the United States Supreme Court had been preserved—its size had not been manipulated for political or ideological ends. On the other hand, Roosevelt claimed that though he had lost the battle, he had won the war. And in an important sense he had: he had staved off the expected invalidation of the Social Security Act and other laws. More significantly, the switch in the court that spring resulted in what historians call “the constitutional revolution of 1937”—the legitimation of a greatly expanded exercise of powers by both the national and state governments that has persisted for decades.
The 168-day contest also has bequeathed some salutary lessons. It instructs presidents to think twice before tampering with the Supreme Court. FDR’s scheme, said the Senate Judiciary Committee, was “a measure which should be so emphatically rejected that its parallel will never again be presented to the free representatives of the free people of America.” And it never has been. At the same time, it teaches the justices that if they unreasonably impede the functioning of the democratic branches, they may precipitate a crisis with unpredictable consequences. In his dissent in the AAA case in 1936, Justice Stone reminded his brethren, “Courts are not the only agency of government that must be assumed to have capacity to govern.” These are lessons— for the president and for the court—as salient today as they were in 1937.This Is How FDR Tried to Pack the Supreme Court, by Lesley Kennedy, Jun 28, 2018.
As RGB knew, even the mighty FDR was wrong to attempt to destroy the SCOTUS by increasing the number of justices as a means to an end for temporary political goals. However enticing it might appear, it’s going to hurt everyone in the end.