Thursday, September 15, 2016
Do we really need the United States Supreme Court to be fully staffed with nine justices? Eric Segall at The Daily Beast says, "No." This answer is a direct affront to the traditional idea that having an uneven number of justices is good for cleanly resolving disputes. Avoiding a tie is the most important thing. Or is it?
The legal outcome when justices vote 4-4 on an issue is simply that the result from the court below stands, and no precedent is made. The case ends for the parties involved, but the effect of the ruling also remains restricted to that jurisdiction. In a day and age when politics seem to cloud every serious issue or casual conversation, this is certainly a new way to think about the operational power of the Court.
Segall says the benefits to leaving the Court with only eight seats filled would be that no one political party could have too much influence over the outcome of controversial cases. Historically, the Court has been criticized for leaning too far one way or the other. In doing so, the Court, which is ideally a non-political entity, since justices are not elected, might be able to maintain or regain some of the aura of a disinterested neutral body.
But leaving the Court in this status really only addresses our current highly politicized process, and assumes that half the Court will always be conservative and the other half liberal. The Court can still shift to having a majority of conservative or liberal leaning justices even if the total number of justices remains at eight. Of course, other political ideologies may also come to dominate as well.
Further, while 4-4 decisions put the brakes on creating law that could be too partisan leaning, extended periods of deadlocked opinions could also do more harm than good. The Supreme Court should be able to break ties in order to unify disparate approaches amongst the lower courts. Allowing 4-4 "sides" to continue could perpetuate the perceived political nature of the Court. This would ultimately only serve to fuel the existing divisiveness in the population and the erosion of public trust in our judicial system.