Those of us who are, or have been, lawyers have watched the litigation over Trump’s purloined documents with amazement bordering on mystification. Suddenly, the potential consequences of Trump’s appointment of rogue judges are too dire to ignore.
The crises within the federal judiciary aren’t all new. During my years in the academy, I was a subscriber and occasional participant of the Law and Courts listserv–a forum for professors of law and political science. Well before McConnell’s shocking departure from constitutional and democratic norms, or Trump’s nomination of only Federalist Society favorites, scholars had focused on the need to expand the Supreme Court–a need prompted by increased workloads leading to fewer decisions.
Participants also raised concerns about the increasing politicization of the courts. As an article in Politico recently put it, the widely ridiculed–and clearly political– Cannon ruling
underscores the deep fragility of judicial independence and the extraordinary strains it’s of late experienced. The episode is further a timely reminder that there’s no guarantee that an independent judiciary will survive. Just like other public institutions, American courts can unravel and lose public trust, with no easy way to get it back.
The lifetime appointments of federal judges were intended to shield jurists from political pressure, leaving them free to issue decisions based upon their reading of the law, rather than partisan passions. The Founders seemed not to worry about the possibility of politicized appointments.
As Politico noted,
the drafters of the Constitution assumed that there was little risk of politicized appointments for two reasons. First, they expected the supply of qualified judges to be very limited. Second, they viewed the Senate as a disinterested body, “standing above politics.” Of course, both assumptions quickly foundered with the rise of law schools and national political parties. And the federal judiciary attracted partisan labels as early as 1800. Judicial independence, in short, was compromised early and deeply by the failure of the framers’ guiding assumptions.
Commenters to that Law and Courts listserv also noted the effects of longer lifespans on the federal judiciary, and advocated term limits that would be long enough to shield judges from the immediacy of political repercussions (the preferred term was 18 years) to mitigate concerns over terms stretching into judicial dotage.
Now, concerns about the state of the judiciary extend well beyond academic discussions.
It is in this context of pervasive skepticism about the quality of American courts that Cannon issued her order. In its details, it confirms and exacerbates skepticism about the idea of an apolitical bench. Even conservative commentators have flagged its sharp swerve from the normal treatment criminal suspects receive based on “irrelevant” considerations about Trump’s “reputation.” Concerns were stoked when Trump’s lawyers “went shopping” for a judge he’d appointed — rather than appear before the magistrate who’d issued the original warrant — and who’s received death threats for his pains from the former president’s supporters. And they flared further when Cannon telegraphed her intention to rule for the president who appointed her even before the Justice Department had filed any papers.
Cannon’s order, then, is troubling not just in isolation as a “deeply flawed” decision on its specific merits. It also should worry because it seems to affirm, and hence accentuate, a larger narrative of fracturing judicial independence.
Jamelle Bouie addressed the issue of a politicized judiciary in a recent New York Times essay. His recommendation echoed that of the scholars on the listserv: expand and reorganize the federal court system.
The practical reason to increase the number of courts and judges is that the country is much larger than it was in 1990, when Congress made its last expansion, adding 11 seats to the circuit court system and 61 seats to the district court system. This was modest compared with a change in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed the largest judiciary expansion in history, creating 150 new judgeships and expanding the entire federal bench by more than a third.
In the 32 years since 1990, the United States has grown from a population of roughly 250 million to a population of over 330 million. More people means more legal disputes, more legal disputes means more cases, more cases means more work. And the federal judiciary is swamped. Last year, the Judicial Conference of the United States, a nonpartisan policymaking body for the federal courts, recommended that Congress create 79 new judgeships across existing district and appeals courts.
Congress, and here I mean Democrats, should go further with a court expansion to rival Carter’s. They should create new circuits, new courts and new judgeships. The goal is simple: to account for growth and to deal with the problem of a cohort of hyperpartisan and ideological judges whose loyalty to Trump may outweigh their commitment to the law.
I agree. But it won’t happen if Americans don’t vote Blue No Matter Who this November.