2020 dealt us another major blow last week, when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. Justice Ginsburg, agree or disagree with her jurisprudentially, was an inspiration to many. Rightly so. She was a trailblazer. Incidentally, for anyone interested, there is a great movie about her life in the law: “On the Basis of Sex.” Available on Crave, I think.
Predictably, though, the good feelings towards Justice Ginsburg have quickly morphed into a sickening volcano of politics. The story starts back in 2016, when then-President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court seat left open by Justice Antonin Scalia upon his death. The Senate, which has the advice and consent function on new judges under the US Constitution, and led by Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to even hold a vote on Garland. The rationale at the time was that, with a Democratic President and a Republican-controlled Senate, “[t]he American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” The gamble worked out for the Republicans, who won the Presidency in 2016 and were able to nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch to fill Justice Scalia’s old seat.
The Republicans put a mark in the sand in 2016, and if we lived in a world of consistency and honour, the Republicans would forestall their choice for the Supreme Court until after the 2020 election. But unfortunately, the Republicans see an opportunity. Mitch McConnell has announced that the Senate will consider the President’s nominee before the election. His justification for doing so, compared to 2016, is that now the same party holds the White House and the Senate. This is, to put it in a word, ridiculous. But in this imperfect world, I do not see any way for the Democrats themselves to stop the nomination from moving forward–save for some courageous Republicans.
The Democrats, angry by this, have lost their patience. Prominent Democrats have opened the door to court-packing, a play that would expand the court and allow Democrats (should they win the presidency) to “pack” the court with sympathetic judges. The underlying theory behind this move is simple: the Republicans have gamed the Supreme Court for too long, and the system itself is illegitimate. The Democrats have to react accordingly by bringing a gun to a gun fight. Or, perhaps more generously, the Democrats need to “expand democracy” (loads of problems with this that I cannot deal with here).
I think this is a flawed way of thinking that will simply lead to a race to the bottom. More promising are calls for a comprehensive deal between the parties. But if the choice is to pack the court or retain the status quo, I say retain the status quo, much as it pains me to say it. Life—and law—is not about utopia, but about choosing the least of bad options. And this is one of those situations.
There are reasons of principle and pragmatism for my conclusion. The entire point of the Supreme Court—in both Canada and the United States—is to act as an apex court in a system of judicial review. Despite the fashionable trend towards eroding the distinction between law and politics, judicial review is a quintessentially legal task, asking whether government laws or action remain consistent with some external norm, such as the Constitution. To do so, over time, courts (in theory) develop settled doctrine and precedent to govern the application of the law. To be fair, we have never reached this Nirvana in law. But in the application of law, we do our best to depoliticize the process as much as we can, so that the work judges do has some legitimacy attached to it.
Whether one accepts this or not, as time has gone on, especially in the United States, the Supreme Court appointment process itself has become politicized, undermining the perception of the review role of the court. Ideological litmus tests abound, and as noted above, at least in recent memory, the Republicans have played games with the nomination process. This raises a question. Even if the application of law is, ideally, removed from the spectre of “politics” (a vexing terminological question I am conveniently sidestepping here), there is still a question of perception. In other words, the system must also be supported by a “spirit of legality,” as Dicey put it. In service of that spirit, it is my view that political actors sometimes need decline to exercise power they strictly have in legal form in order to create an institutional culture of respect for the law. This goes both ways. While it is true that the Republicans have the “raw power” to move a nomination through the Senate, they may want to keep their powder dry in the name of the rule they created in 2016, and as a means to protect the legitimacy of the Court in the public eye. And the Democrats will want to abstain from moving on court-packing, because it too transforms the trappings of the court into an ideological fever-pitch. Even if one believes the system is illegitimate, making it more illegitimate is a self-own.
I am alive to the criticism that I live in a world that either never existed or is long gone. That is, at least since Bork (and likely before), the Supreme Court selection process has been a breeding ground for partisan considerations. This is true. But that is not a reason to go further down the rabbit hole. If anything, it is a moment to reflect how far we have come, and what we need to do to ensure our institutions retain legitimacy. As Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg note, court-packing is anathema to the Rule of Law.
Arguments from principle nowadays are not very convincing to many, left and right, who view themselves as engaged in a culture war where institutions are just organs of power, rather than bodies with designed and limited powers. So let me speak their language on my second point. Court-packing will be like a drug for the Democrats. It will feel really good to dunk on the Republicans for a few years. But as Joe Biden aptly noted in 2019:
In other words, on and on the merry-go-round goes. And it will never end. The Democrats have to ask themselves an important question if they go down the road of court-packing: are you so sure that you will end up on the winning end of the deal, over the years? How much would you be willing to bet? The Republicans have gamed the Court far more effectively than the Democrats over the years. There is no reason to believe that would stop in a post-court-packing world. In other words, as a matter of strategy, unless the Democrats are sure they would end up winning, the smart play is to simply hold fire.
Holding fire is not desirable for many in today’s world, as I alluded to above. Today, the name of the game is power. Those who consider themselves engaged in a culture war view the matter as a tactical one, in which power that is held must be used to extinguish the other side. But there are more important things than winning a political battle. Institutions that are designed to apply law, for all of us, is one of those important things.
On the other hand, holding fire is not the ideal solution here, by far. While there are many permutations on offer, I am quite convinced that Ilya Somin’s suggested solution is one worth exploring. Here it is:
- The Republicans promise not to confirm any Supreme Court nominee until after January 20 of next year, at which time whoever wins the election will get to name Justice Ginsburg’s replacement.
2. In exchange, the Democrats promise not to support any expansion of the size of the Supreme Court for at least the next ten years.
This solution puts protecting the institution at the forefront before political victories. And it buys time for the sides to cool down the temperature and do the right thing. There are other options on the table: term limits, mandatory retirement, the list goes on. In a healthy constitutional democracy, all of these things should be on the table. Of course, I have no hope that this these solutions will come to pass. That in itself is an indictment of the American constitutional democracy as it stands.
All in all, court-packing poses the question to the Democrats: are you confident in your side winning the war over the long term? If you aren’t, court-packing is a gamble that could hurt the Democrats over the long haul. And nowadays, maybe that is the most important consideration for culture warriors to keep in mind. Self-owning is never fun.