Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Politics and the United States Supreme Court

On the eve of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, members of the Republican and Democratic parties are preparing for what will likely be a difficult and highly partisan hearing. Republicans on the judiciary committee will likely contend that Judge Barrett’s qualifications, reputation, and character overwhelmingly support her confirmation. Democrats will likely contend that confirming Judge Barrett less than a month before the Presidential election is inappropriate, particularly given the Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings for Merrick Garland in the months preceding the 2016 election. Regardless of whether Judge Barrett is confirmed (the odds are solidly in her favor), few can doubt that the hearings will be contentious and reflect the partisanship and divisiveness that currently pervades the political arena. The consequences will not be insubstantial; rather, Judge Barrett’s hearing, like the hearing of then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh, will underscore how political the confirmation process – and arguably the Court itself – has become. And it will potentially undermine the public’s confidence in the Court and the rule of law.

To make matters worse, some members of the Democratic party have threatened to “pack the court” with additional (and arguably liberal) justices to counter the solidly conservative majority that Judge Barrett’s confirmation would likely create. But packing the Court will make the problem worse, not better.  It would be predicated on the assumption that a President’s – and a justice’s – perceived ideology and policy predilections will lead to outcomes that one party deems politically desirable. And if the public perceived as such, the Court would become more politicized, the rule of law more trivialized, and the legitimacy of the Court’s decisions minimized.

So how can we preserve the rule of law, maintain the Court’s independence, and ensure confidence in the Court’s decision-making process? Not through a contentious and partisan confirmation hearing. Not by packing the Court.

Instead, require a supermajority. Specifically, require that to reverse or affirm a lower court decision (and, of course, change the law), six, not five votes, are required.

This solution would have several benefits that would preserve the Court’s legitimacy, protect the separation of powers, and promote democratic choice regarding issues upon which the Constitution is silent. First, 5-4 decisions have been and continue to be the source of substantial disagreement and division. The Court’s decisions in National Federation of Independent v. Sebelius, Obergefell v. Hodges, Shelby County v. Holder, and Bush v. Gore are perfect examples. A six-vote majority would reduce the frequency with which the Court issues controversial decisions.

Second, requiring a six-vote majority would almost certainly lead to incremental, rather than drastic, changes in the law and minimize the risk that the Court’s decisions will be perceived as political and illegitimate. To achieve a six-vote majority, the justices would be forced to compromise and reach a middle ground concerning decisions that affect, among other things, civil rights and liberties. As such, the influence of ideology or policy preferences in the decision-making process would be minimized.

Third, a six-vote majority requirement would likely affect the process by which the Court grants certiorari. The Court would be less likely to accept cases -- particularly those involving divisive social and political issues -- if the justices knew that there was little, if any, likelihood of obtaining a six-vote majority. The effect would be that many decisions concerning divisive policy issues would be resolved through the democratic process, not by nine unelected judges with life tenure.

Fourth, a six-vote majority might incentivize litigants to stop seeking social change through the courts and instead concentrate their efforts on effecting change through the legislature. Doing so would limit the Court’s power in a principled way. The Court would still decide cases that involved violations of specific constitutional or statutory guarantees, but a six-vote majority requirement would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Court to create rights based on implausible interpretations of the Constitution and thus engender public backlash. This is a good thing; after all, the Court’s decision in Roe. v. Wade, which was indefensible as a matter of constitutional law, has engendered so much backlash that the right to abortion will continue to be litigated for the foreseeable future.

Fifth, a six-member majority requirement would de-politicize the Court and the process by which justices are confirmed, preserve the Court’s independence, and protect the Court’s legitimacy.  Simply put, packing the Court isn’t the answer. Requirement a six-vote majority is – and should be considered seriously.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2020/10/politics-and-the-united-states-supreme-court.html

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