Merge the court

If the Democrats win the Presidency and the Senate, and if they are not inclined to betray the country to plutocratic interests (who would be glad to compensate them for the electoral cost of doing so), they will reform the Federal judiciary in some manner next year.

The most widely discussed reform is to “pack the court” by increasing the number of Supreme Court Justices, creating vacancies a President Biden could fill, to counter or correct Republicans’ “constitutional hardball” with respect to replacements for Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Packing the court is a “tit” that conjures an obvious “tat” — Republicans almost assuredly would expand the size of the court next time they held the Presidency and the Senate, in an escalatory game without obvious end. Unfortunately, I think simple court-expansion is the most likely reform, because it retains and enhances the role of the Supreme Court as an existential polarizing issue during election campaigns, which is great for fundraising and preserving incumbency. These escalations are terrible for the country, but good for a politics industry that includes both parties.

However, if a Biden administration wants to do the right thing for the country, rather than for their industry, here is my proposal.

I. Merge the Federal Appeals Court into Supreme Court

The Federal judiciary is currently a three-level hierarchy, with district courts, appeals (or “circuit”) courts, and the Supreme Court. It should be collapsed into a two-level hierarchy. All of the members of the current appeals court would become Supreme Court justices. That would leave the Supreme Court with a Republican skew, but much more balanced than the current Court’s expected 2 to 1 skew. Presuming Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed (and no further turnover), there would be 104 Republican appointees and 84 Democratic appointees.

Cases would still be heard by nine-member panels, but each panel would be randomly selected from the full body of the Court. “Certiorari” petitions would be voted up or down by a majority vote of the full body.

Ordinary appeals would be heard as they are now, within still extant circuits of the now merged Court. These could then be appealed to the plenary Supreme Court.

II. Require a supermajority to strike down laws as unconstitutional

Marbury v. Madison is a live issue again in American politics. Matt Bruenig and Ryan Cooper argue we should simply cease to respect the prerogative claimed by the judicial branch to strike down laws judges deem inconsistent with the Constitution.

I oppose that approach. I do think we want to preserve the supremacy, in practical terms, of a rights-protecting core of law that can only be overridden by a difficult amendment process. However, there should be a lot more deference to a presumption that the legislative branch would have considered and respected the constitutionality of laws when they act. The judicial branch should only be able to strike down laws as unconstitutional when a strong consensus prevails within this now very broad Supreme Court.

I propose the following procedure: Whenever a panel of nine of the reformed Supreme Court hears a case, it’s first duty is to determine whether there is a constitutional question implicated that might render some or all of the law it is asked to apply unconsititional. If at least three of the panel believe there is such an issue, the justices on both sides (if they are not unanimous) would write opinions unrelated to the specific facts of the case before them, solely on the controversy over constitutionality. The full body of the Court would then vote on the question, and the legislature would only be overridden if three fourths of the justices concur that the law was unconstitutional. Once the constitutionality question has been settled, the case would return to the nine-member panel for adjudication consistent with that determination.

This supermajority deference would not apply to executive orders and actions. When the executive and the judiciary conflict, the legislature must decide the issue. Reforming our dysfunctional legislature is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but we should start now to counter our drift towards an atrophied Congress and imperial Presidency.

III. Eliminate fixed sizes and any notion of “vacancy”

There should be no fixed size for the new Supreme Court. Justices should continue to serve within “circuits”, and new appointments should be allocated to circuits according to which circuit is most understaffed relative to the population served. If, at a given time, the Third Circuit serves an area with 7% of the population, but only 4% of Supreme Court justices are assigned to that circuit, and no other circuit is even more underrepresented, then the next appointment would go to that circuit.

The only position that could ever become “vacant” would be the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who would be nominated and confirmed according to the current process, usually from within the existing court (though it might not be constitutional to require that). The Chief Justice would perform her constitutionally prescribed roles, and would remain the administrative and ceremonial head of the Court, but in the business of deciding cases she would just be primus inter pares, perhaps an unusually respected voice but one accorded no special formal privileges.

IV. Limit the number of appointments per Presidential term to enforce near parity of influence

Congress should fix a limit to the number of Supreme Court appointments that can be made in any four-year Presidential term. This would be a number close to ten, if we wish to preserve approximately the current size of the newly merged judiciary. Each President would be free to make appointments until that limit had been exhausted. The Senate might block an administration’s appointments, of course, preventing the full complement of nominees from being seated. In that case, the next administration would be limited to appointing the number of justices seated by the prior administration, plus one. In other words, the number of appointments a President may make per four year term would be the minimum of the fixed limit of ten and the number seated by the prior administration plus one. This would limit any hope of partisan profit in Senate obstructionism. Blocking low-quality appointments would remain fine and wise, but stalling one President’s appointments would give little advantage to the next President’s party.

None of these ideas are, I think, original. I was delighted, for example, to see that Jamelle Bouie favors a randomized Supreme Court. According to Ryan Doerfler and Samuel Moyn, the idea of a supermajority requirement for declaring a law unconstitutional dates back to the 1920s. I don’t know antecedents to the fixed-appointment-schedule, variably-sized court idea, but I am sure they exist.

The reform proposed here would not be “packing the Court” in any partisan sense. It would in fact preserve a narrow Republican appointment majority all the way through a Biden term. Supermajority judicial review would be a strike for judicial modesty that publics of both parties, rendered fearful by negative partisanship, should support. Random draws mean that some cases would be decided by heavily skewed panels, but the scope of each panel’s discretion would be modest (due to the plenary supermajority required for judicial review), and the temptation to very partisan decision-making would be tempered by the fact that other cases will be decided by panels tilted the other way. Judges of neither party could imagine that an exercise of plain partisan overreach could escape reversal or retaliatory escalation by the other side. With “running the ball down the field” for ones own party a prescription for certain stalemate, hopefully justices’ shared interest in coherent and consistent application of the law would prevail and guide the operation of the merged, reformed Court.

Update History:

  • 21-Oct-2020, 3:30 p.m. EDT: Add clarification to “I. Merge the Federal Appeals Court into Supreme Court” that ordinary appeals still proceed within circuits.
  • 21-Oct-2020, 3:35 p.m. EDT: “…respected the constitutionality of law laws…”

2 Responses to “Merge the court”

  1. Doug writes:

    These all seem like reasonable reforms in a vacuum, but I have a tough time squaring any of them with my strong feeling that there is an urgent need to make large changes to the way this country works. The Supreme Court as currently composed represents an existential threat to humanity: it is likely to strike down large components of the Green New Deal. Any reform that continues to leave Republicans with more power than Democrats results in the same thing. Compared to that, I don’t think I care about the risk of escalating court-packing initiatives.

  2. drfrank writes:

    I have been thinking the Dems ought to put Merrick Garland on the Court, before they do anything else. It was the Repubs who packed the Court by denying Obama a well qualified judge. The point is not to make the kind of huge institutional changes you suggest, it is to restore a sense of fairness and non ideological responsibility to the functions of governance