Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Reforming the Judiciary

In the wake of Amy Coney Barrett’s ascendency to the United States Supreme Court, several elected officials and commentators have suggested that the next president should pack the Court, namely, add more justices to ensure a political and ideological balance.  These concerns are predicated, in part, on the belief that the Court has become too conservative and, under an originalist framework, will eviscerate various civil rights and protections. For example, some commentators contend that the Court will, among other things, invalidate the Affordable Care Act and restrict, if not eliminate, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. These arguments – and the unquestionable divisiveness that has characterized recent confirmation hearings – demonstrate that the Court has become an increasingly politicized institution. And the politicization of the Court threatens its institutional legitimacy and, ultimately, the rule of law itself.

In response to calls to pack the Court, presidential candidate Joe Biden recently announced that, if elected, he would form a commission to suggest reforms to the judiciary:

If elected, what I will do is I'll put together a national commission of — bipartisan commission of scholars, constitutional scholars, Democrats, Republicans, liberal, conservative. And I will ask them to over 180 days come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it's getting out of whack.[1]

But packing the Court is not the answer. Adding additional justices will only further politicize the Court, as future presidents will continue to appoint justices whose interpretive philosophy suggests that such justices will reach decisions that comport with a president’s policy predilections. This does not mean, however, that reforms are unnecessary. Below are a few suggestions that would likely de-politicize the Court, preserve the judiciary’s institutional legitimacy, and protect the rule of law.

1.    Require a 6-3 supermajority to affirm or reverse lower court decisions

Much of the Court’s politicization has resulted from controversial 5-4 decisions regarding socially and politically divisive issues, such as the rights to abortion and same-sex marriage, and the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. These decisions have often divided the Court along perceived ideological lines, the consequence of which has been to undermine the Court’s legitimacy and erode public confidence in the judiciary.

Requiring a six-vote supermajority would avoid substantially the problems that 5-4 decisions engender. Specifically, a supermajority requirement would promote moderation because it would require the justices to compromise and thus would reduce, if not eliminate, the influence of ideology on judicial decision-making. As such, the Court would likely avoid the types of decisions that cause a political backlash, either by refusing to grant certiorari in such cases or reaching narrower decisions that effectuate incremental, rather than sweeping, changes in the law. Additionally, this approach is arguably more democratic because it would prevent, at least in some contexts, nine unelected and life-tenured judges from deciding what the law should be for all fifty states.

2.    Deny certiorari in cases where a legal issue is politically divisive and the Constitution is ambiguous.

In recent decades, the Court has decided cases involving politically divisive issues where the Constitution, either through silence or ambiguity, does not clearly resolve that issue. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that such decisions are often decided on a 5-4 basis and engender substantial criticism. For example, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, the Constitution provided no clear answer regarding whether the Affordable Care Act, particularly the individual mandate, violated the Commerce Clause.[2] Given this fact, and given that the Act had been passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Obama, why did the Court get involved? The result was a 5-4 decision that engendered more criticism than praise, and that undermined, rather than preserved, the Court’s legitimacy. Likewise, in Clinton v. New York, both houses of Congress and President George H. W. Bush signed into law the line-item veto.[3] Notwithstanding, the Court invalidated the legislation, holding that it violated the Presentment Clause even though the Clause, largely because of its broadly worded language, did not provide sufficient, if any, guidance regarding its constitutionality. Again, why did the Court get involved?

Put simply, the Court should be reluctant to grant certiorari in politically or socially divisive cases unless the law or a lower court opinion plainly violates a provision in the Constitution (not the “penumbras” created in Griswold v. Connecticut).[4] Instead, it should defer to the coordinate branches – and to democratic choice.

3.    Allow the Supreme Court to issue advisory opinions

The conventional wisdom is that advisory opinions violate the “case or controversy” requirement in Article III of the Constitution. But the lack of a specific case does not mean that there is no controversy. The word “controversy” can be construed to enable the Court, in some circumstances, to issue advisory opinions regarding a law’s constitutionality.

Such an approach would have substantial benefits. To begin with, it would empower the Court to resolve important legal issues quickly and efficiently. Currently, cases challenging a law’s constitutionality typically take years to reach the Court and frequently involve alleged violations of fundamental rights.  And during this time, the federal courts of appeals often reach opposite conclusions, which creates uncertainty and instability in the law. Perhaps most importantly, if the Court in such cases ultimately decides that a law violates a fundamental right, it means that, for the several years that it took to reach the Court, individuals were being consistently deprived of a particular constitutional protection. Furthermore, given the rapid pace at which technology is advancing, allowing the Court to issue advisory opinions in cases concerning the constitutionality of, for example, searches and seizures, would bring much-needed efficiency, clarity, fairness, and stability to the law. Of course, advisory opinions would be appropriate only in situations that are tantamount to a facial challenge to a statute and thus involve purely legal questions. Some may argue that this approach would likely violate the separation of powers by giving the Court impermissible authority to encroach on the lawmaking process. But if the Court is ultimately going to decide the question after protracted litigation, the argument regarding the separation of powers is unconvincing.

***

Ultimately, to the extent that reforms are needed, they should focus on giving the Court (and lower courts) less power to resolve politically and socially divisive issues, but more power to resolve other issues in an efficient manner. Part of the solution may involve requiring a six-vote supermajority, denying certiorari in particular cases, and enabling the Court issue advisory opinions. Court-packing, however, is not the answer. It should be rejected.

[1] Caitlin Oprysko, After dodging questions about court packing, Biden floats commission to study judicial reforms (Oct. 22, 2020), available at:  https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/22/joe-biden-court-packing-judicial-reforms-commission-431157.

[2] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[3] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[4] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

 

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Comments

The 6-3 proposal would have more merit if the 6-3 right wing/corporatist majority did not already exist. The court has already been packed. Now the court has to be balanced, to unpack it.

Posted by: Ricky Greenwald | Nov 2, 2020 10:30:45 PM

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