It might be time for Supreme Court reform

James Dobson, Contributing Writer

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hasn’t always looked like it does today, and it might be time to take another look at how this institution, one of the most powerful in American politics, is set up.

Photo from Flickr

The SCOTUS was founded in 1789 with the Judiciary Act, signed by George Washington. At the time, it only had six justices. Like today, they served until death or retirement. The number of seats on the Supreme Court has been changed six times over America’s history, ranging from five to 10 seats through its existence. In 1896, the number of seats was set to nine which it remains at today.

Many do not realize that the only constitutionally mandated judge is the chief justice. The federal judiciary has always been subjected to be reshaped and molded by Congress. However, to actually attempt such a thing is politically unpopular. The last notable attempt to reshape the highest court in the land was President Franklin Roosevelt’s Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, more commonly known as the court-packing plan. This bill would have added just enough justices to the Supreme Court to sway it to Roosevelt’s side, so that his New Deal legislation would stop being struck down by the SCOTUS as unconstitutional.

This plan instantly proved to be widely unpopular with the American public. As a result, Roosevelt’s court-packing plan failed in the Senate, and another attempt to reshape the makeup of the court in any way has not been made by any president since.

Thus, the structure of the Supreme Court has remained the same since 1896. Once nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, all nine Supreme Court justices are on the court until death or retirement. Only one justice, Samuel Chase, in the history of the U.S. has been impeached, but even then, he was later acquitted and returned to the court. Because of this unique process, SCOTUS justices do not have to go out of their way to appease their party. They are not meant to be political figures and their only concern should be the interpretation of the law.

“Once confirmed, all of us are primarily responsible to the law,” Justice Stephen Bryer once during an interview. “To this institution. To your own conscience. And the public no longer has a direct ability to influence the decision through the ballot box. That’s why that confirmation process is a very important thing.”

While Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death and the subsequent Republican effort to replace her has made many Democrats question the system in place, all Americans, regardless of party, could stand to benefit from a reformation of the SCOTUS. There’s no way to tell which party will lose the next justice to retirement or death, and depending on the makeup of the Senate and the presidency, the same scenario could very well repeat with the attempted replacement of a Republican Supreme Court justice with a democratic or even an independent one.

There’s not one clear way to fix this problem. However, one of the most popular proposed solutions is an 18-year term limit for justices. If such a term limit were put into place, there would be a Supreme Court vacancy every two years. This would give every president the chance to appoint two new justices per term (barring unforeseen circumstances) rather than leaving the amount of justices appointed completely up to chance.

Another solution some have called for is to raise the number of justices to 15. In this plan, 10 justices would be appointed and divided equally between party lines. These 10 judges would then come together to select the remaining five. The main goal of this system would be to depoliticize the court, rather than focusing on the parties trying to keep the court tilted in their favor.

Currently, Supreme Court reform has much wider support among Democrats than Republicans, due to the fact that President Donald Trump has so far had three SCOTUS openings during just his first term in office. However, a reworking of the way new justices are elected has the potential to benefit both parties in the long run; no matter what side of the political divide that you stand, you could one day find yourself holding your breath that an older justice stays on the court long enough for the next election cycle because of the opposing party being in power. The Supreme Court as we know it today can be viewed as a political lottery and moving away from such a system would do much more to bring greater stability to one of the most important institutions in our government.

And this issue likely will only grow all the more important as time goes on. Since laws are becoming increasingly more difficult to pass in Congress due to growing political divides and increasing polarization between Democrats and Republicans, the Supreme Court is growing more powerful as a result. It is picking up the slack left by Congress and increasingly affects policy. 

While it’s unlikely we will see any major Supreme Court reform anytime in the near future due to the general unpopularity of the idea and the lack of a single, clear solution, it’s important we keep our minds open in this rapidly evolving political landscape.