THE DAMAGE THE RADICAL REACTIONARIES ARE DOING TO THE SUPREME COURT AND OUR DEMOCRACY AND HOW TO FIX IT

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The radical, reactionary decisions of the Supreme Court’s six-justice majority not only affect society (see my previous post), they have implications for our democracy and the future of the Court itself. Their decisions undermine the credibility of the Court, the rule of law, and American democracy. They mean that government will not be able to regulate businesses, protect workers, or protect people’s civil rights. They mean that our government will not be able to provide a safety net for individuals when they fall on hard times and will not be able to promote public health and infrastructure.

The way the Supreme Court is making decisions is undermining its credibility and eroding respect for it among the public. The majority of the Court’s decisions since 2017 have been on the “shadow docket,” i.e., decisions made without the benefit of written or oral arguments. These decisions are often made and released in the dead of night, and often with an unsigned written statement (aka opinion). These opinions are typically short and fail to present a rationale for the decision. They almost exclusively advance a right-wing political agenda. Prior to 2017, such emergency rulings were rare and were used for uncontroversial decisions or when time was of the essence, such as death penalty executions. In less than three years, the Trump administration filed for at least 28 such rulings (an average of almost 9 per year), while there were only eight in the previous 16 years (an average of one every other year). [1]

The Court is emasculating the rule of law and degrading American democracy. It is failing to enforce federal laws, making decisions without considering the merits of cases, and allowing states to do as they please, even when they violate the Constitution and people’s rights. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent on the case on the Texas law limiting pregnancy terminations, “The Court should not be so content to ignore its constitutional obligations to protect not only the rights of women, but also the sanctity of its precedents and of the rule of law.” [2]

Justice Kagan, in her dissent on the Texas case, noted that the Court’s recent actions, “which every day becomes more unreasoned,  inconsistent, and impossible to defend,” are undermining the legitimacy of the Court. She noted, by way of example, that the Court failed to intervene to protect the rights of millions of Texas women, despite having intervened aggressively to protect alleged religious rights, such as when a California church had been prohibited from meeting in-person by Covid restrictions. Since Justice Barrett was seated in October 2020, the Court has issued seven emergency injunctions (e.g., blocking state coronavirus restrictions), while only four such injunctions had been issued during the previous 15 years of Justice Robert’s tenure. [3]

Making things even worse, the Supreme Court is treating its shadow docket decisions, promulgated without any reasoning to back them up, as creating new legal precedents that lower courts must follow. According to precedent, shadow docket cases do not establish new law, in part because the merits of the case have not been argued and considered. However, the current Court has had no problem asserting that its shadow docket decisions establish new law and legal precedents, particularly when infringements of religious rights have been alleged.

Given that the Court is ruling inconsistently, ignoring even its own recent precedents, making decisions without hearing or considering the merits of a cases, and promulgating its decisions without justifications, it is clear that the Court is advancing an ideological and partisan political agenda and not a legal one. This dramatically undermines the legitimacy of the Court and powerfully supports the case for Court reform.

In addition to the behavior of the radical, reactionary majority on the Court, the way two of the justices got on the Court also argues for reform. As you probably remember, in the spring of 2016, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (Republican of Kentucky) refused to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for an open seat on the Supreme Court, supposedly because it was an election year and the decision should be left to the new president. This reduced the size of the Court from nine to eight justice for roughly a year. However, when an opening occurred in September, 2020, also an election year, McConnell and the Republicans were happy to rush through the nomination of Amy Barrett, literally days before the election. So, the Republicans stole two seats on the Court and filled them with radical reactionaries.

These appointments raised issues about the appointment process and the lifetime terms of justices, given that it was the deaths of two sitting justices that led to these openings. However, there are other long-term issues with the Supreme Court. For example, there is no Code of Ethics that covers Supreme Court justices; they are exempt from the ethics rules that apply to other federal judges.

President Biden has appointed a Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States to study the issues with the Court and the need for reform. Testimony was received from a long list of people, including Harvard Law Professor Michael J. Klarman, who has written a 260-page Harvard Law Review article on the degradation of American democracy and the Supreme Court’s role in it. In his testimony to the Commission, Klarman recommends and provides a strong rationale for: [4]

  • 18-year, non-renewable, staggered terms for justices, so that a seat is filled every two years, and
  • Expanding the Court by four seats immediately.

Others have recommended adding two seats to the Court to make up for the two that were stolen by Republican shenanigans. Robert Hubbell, a retired lawyer, recommends: [5]

  • Expanding the Court, noting that this would require bypassing the filibuster,
  • Limiting the terms of justices,
  • Implementing a code of judicial ethics for the justices, and
  • Limiting the Court’s ability to decide substantive issues on the shadow docket.

I urge you to let your U.S. Representative and Senators, along with President Biden, know that you support reform of the Supreme Court to restore its legitimacy and non-partisan operation. Urge them to push for a strong, substantive report and set of recommendations from the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court to achieve these goals. Then, we will all need to work to ensure that needed changes in the Supreme Court are implemented.

You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 9/1/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/september-1-2021)

[2]      Sotomayor, S., 9/3/21, “Sotomayor’s defiant dissent,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/sotomayor-abortion-dissent/)

[3]      Vladeck, S., 9/3/21, “The Supreme Court doesn’t just abuse its shadow docket. It does so inconsistently,” The Washington Post

[4]      Klarman, M. J., 7/20/21, “Court expansion and other changes to the Court’s composition,” Written statement to the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States (https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Klarman-Testimony.pdf)

[5]      Hubbell, R., 9/2/21, “Today’s Edition: Susan Collins should resign in disgrace,” (https://roberthubbell.substack.com/p/todays-edition-susan-collins-should)

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