In the not-so-distant past, presidential nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court weren’t always controversial and many justices were approved in the Senate by wide margins.
But, as Democrats and Republicans have become more strident in their beliefs and actions, they’ve seen nominations to the high court as a way to solidify their policies even as control of Congress and the White House changes hands.
This was exemplified in 2016 when then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings or a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to the court, Merrick Garland, to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia who had died unexpectedly. McConnell said the nomination came too close to a presidential election, which was 237 days away.
Four years later, McConnell hurried Amy Coney Barrett through the Senate confirmation process after the death of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just 38 days before the 2020 presidential election. Barrett’s nomination, Trump’s third, ensured a 6-3 conservative majority on the court at least until the next vacancy.
This hypocrisy in how the Senate handles Supreme Court nominees, and the search for court nominees who are believed to adhere to partisan principles and goals, are more of a problem than the number of justices on the bench or the length of their terms of office. Increasing the number of justices and limiting the length of their terms, as some Democratic lawmakers have proposed, won’t fix the underlying problem, which is that the Senate confirmation process is broken.
Several Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation to expand the Supreme Court from nine to 13 members. The move was necessary, the bills’ backers said on Thursday, to undo the conservative tilt of the court, which they blame on McConnell’s maneuvers. The number of justices on the court has fluctuated over the years and the current makeup of nine justices has not changed since 1869.
The proposal has little prospect of passing in Congress. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she doesn’t plan to bring the legislation to the House floor. She instead backed a commission, recently created by President Joe Biden, to examine reforms to the court.
This hasn’t stopped Republicans from blasting Democrats for trying to “steal the Supreme Court,” as Demi Kouzounas said in a press release last week. This charge is reminiscent of the months of Republican claims that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election, but ironically not the elections that happened on the same day and same ballot that put Republicans in office.
We understand the frustration and heightened tensions, but the way to turn the heat down on Supreme Court nominations is for the Senate to return to a time when Supreme Court vacancies weren’t seen as belonging to the party of the person in the White House or in control of the Senate. In other words, there is no Supreme Court to “steal” from either Republican or Democrats.
We know it sounds overly optimistic, but the justices of the Supreme Court are meant to interpret and uphold the law for all Americans, not for a particular political party or interest group.
History — and current events — have shown us that Supreme Court justices don’t necessarily follow the desires of the presidents who nominated them or adhere to the positions they espoused before joining the court.
Just today, for example, the court declined to take on three cases that sought to challenge limits on gun ownership. The cases involved challenges to lifetime bans on gun ownership for people convicted of certain crimes.
Some gun-rights groups had hoped Justice Barrett would be sympathetic to 2nd Amendment arguments. Because there was no vote before Monday’s decision, it is unclear what position Barrett took in the court’s decision not to hear the cases. It takes four justices to take a case.
The Supreme Court will never be free of political influence and expectations, just as it rarely does the bidding of a particular president. The court is not broken. Rather, it is the Senate confirmation process that needs attention and reform.