When a noted Constitutional scholar and a retired federal judge jointly issue a damning critique of the current Supreme Court, the particulars of that criticism are worth considering.
Tribe, as Americans who follow such matters know, is a highly respected constitutional scholar who taught at Harvard; Gertner is a retired federal judge. Both served on Biden’s Commission charged with reviewing the operations of the Supreme Court , and both now endorse the (longstanding) scholarship advocating the addition of Justices. Interestingly, they write that they entered the Commission’s deliberations with different preferences for addressing the Court’s declining legitimacy–initially, both had favored term limits but not expansion.
They changed their minds.
After serving on the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court over eight months, hearing multiple witnesses, reading draft upon draft of the final report issued this week, our views have evolved. We started out leaning toward term limits for Supreme Court justices but against court expansion and ended up doubtful about term limits but in favor of expanding the size of the court.
In their essay, they explained that their vote in favor of the final report did not signal agreement with all of it, but approval of the process, which they note accurately reflected the complexity of the issue and the diversity of views.
There has never been so comprehensive and careful a study of ways to reform the Supreme Court, the history and legality of various potential reforms, and the pluses and minuses of each. This report will be of value well beyond today’s debates.
In two paragraphs that sum up not just the opinions of these two experts, but–sadly–the all-too-obvious reality of where we find ourselves today, they accurately pinpoint the defects of today’s Court and the impact of those defects on efforts to remedy America’s ills.
But make no mistake: In voting to submit the report to the president neither of us cast a vote of confidence in the Supreme Court itself. Sadly, we no longer have that confidence, given three things: first, the dubious legitimacy of the way some justices were appointed; second, what Justice Sonia Sotomayor rightly called the “stench” of politics hovering over this court’s deliberations about the most contentious issues; and third, the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian direction of this court’s decisions about matters such as voting rights, gerrymandering and the corrupting effects of dark money.
Those judicial decisions haven’t been just wrong; they put the court — and, more important, our entire system of government — on a one-way trip from a defective but still hopeful democracy toward a system in which the few corruptly govern the many, something between autocracy and oligarchy. Instead of serving as a guardrail against going over that cliff, our Supreme Court has become an all-too-willing accomplice in that disaster.
The essay accuses today’s Court of operating to entrench the power of one political party by upholding measures to constrict the vote and deny ballot access to people of color and other minorities, and by “allowing legislative district lines to be drawn that exacerbate demographic differences”–i.e., refusing to hold gerrymandering unconstitutional. And they note that, absent intervention, a Supreme Court that “has been effectively packed” “will remain packed into the indefinite future, with serious consequences to our democracy.”
This is a uniquely perilous moment that demands a unique response.
The concluding paragraphs are worth pondering and– if the political will can be mustered (a critical unknown)–acted upon.
Though fellow commissioners and others have voiced concern about the impact that a report implicitly criticizing the Supreme Court might have on judicial independence and thus judicial legitimacy, we do not share that concern. Far worse are the dangers that flow from ignoring the court’s real problems — of pretending conditions have not changed; of insisting improper efforts to manipulate the court’s membership have not taken place; of looking the other way when the court seeks to undo decades of precedent relied on by half the population to shape their lives just because, given the new majority, it has the votes.
Put simply: Judicial independence is necessary for judicial legitimacy but not sufficient. And judicial independence does not mean judicial impunity, the illusion of neutrality in the face of oppression, or a surface appearance of fairness that barely conceals the ugly reality of partisan manipulation.
Hand-wringing over the court’s legitimacy misses a larger issue: the legitimacy of what our union is becoming. To us, that spells a compelling need to signal that all is not well with the court, and that even if expanding it to combat what it has become would temporarily shake its authority, that risk is worth taking.