How Many Justices Are On The Supreme Court? And Other Civic Literacy Questions…

One of the questions that routinely appears on surveys assessing what Americans know–or don’t–about their government is “how many justices serve on the Supreme Court?” It’s not as silly as “how many stripes are on the American flag?” but it’s close–neither question probes the respondent’s actual knowledge of the philosophy or structure of American government. They fall under the category of “government trivia.”

I’ve previously blogged about the difference between that sort of information and the nature of the non-trivial understandings that citizens ought to have, and I promise this isn’t one of those rants. (I know–you’re relieved.)

The answer to that question about the justices on the Supreme Court is nine. But there is no magic to that number.

It is not required by the Constitution. It hasn’t even always been nine. And as an article by a Rutgers law professor argues, it’s inadequate to the duties assigned to America’s top court. And his argument has nothing to do with suggestions that the Court be expanded if Kavanaugh is confirmed and Democrats subsequently take control of the Presidency.

The battle over court packing is being fought on the wrong terms. Americans of all political stripes should want to see the court expanded, but not to get judicial results more favorable to one party. Instead, we need a bigger court because the current institutional design is badly broken. The right approach isn’t a revival of FDR’s court packing plan, which would have increased the court to 15, or current plans, which call for 11. Instead, the right size is much, much bigger. Three times its current size, or 27, is a good place to start, but it’s quite possible the optimal size is even higher. This needn’t be done as a partisan gambit to stack more liberals on the court. Indeed, the only sensible way to make this change would be to have it phase in gradually, perhaps adding two justices every other year, to prevent any one president and Senate from gaining an unwarranted advantage.