Strike Three: Why the Biden Commission Should Reject Court-Packing

The President Joe Biden's Supreme Court commission continues to operate, keeping alive the calls of court-packing. This hostile takeover plan of the Supreme Court was rejected twice in American history. It can be put to rest by the commission.Court-packing is the practice of increasing the number of judges on a court in order to change its decision. Each president appoints judges to fill vacant positions. Because certain courts require more judges to handle their caseloads, Congress creates new judgeships periodically. These are not court-packing. Congress has known this distinction since inception.Many Americans have probably heard of President Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan that failed in the 1930s. The Supreme Court overturned several laws passed to end the Great Depression during Roosevelt's first term. They were beyond the power of Congress.Roosevelt presented a plan in 1937 that would have added six Supreme Court justices to his court if the more senior and problematic members of Congress did not retire. Roosevelt stated that he would nominate justices to expand constitutional power, so Congress could deal with extraordinary circumstances.Roosevelt's Democratic party led Congress voted no. It was opposed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which called it an attempt to alter the course of judicial decision-making by neutralizing some of its members.However, this effort to overtake them with new members would compromise the independence of courts and increase political control over the judiciary branch. Three quarters of senators who voted against the plan in July 1937 were Democrats.However, this was not the first time Congress had rejected court-packing to protect the independence of the courts. His re-election bid was lost by President John Adams, and his Federalists lost the majority of their congressional seats in 1800.The Federalists devised a plan to stamp their mark on the judiciary, as their replacements wouldn't take office until March. The Federalists quickly passed the 1801 Judiciary Act, which reduced the Supreme Court's size to six to five seats. This was effective when the next vacancy occurred. Adams quickly filled 16 of the six newly created lower courts judgeships.The 1802 Judiciary Act was passed by President Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic Republican allies in Congress. It disbanded 16 new judgeships, and restored the Supreme Court to six members. It is the fact that Congress didn't do it that should be remembered today.Representative John Bacon, a Democratic-Republican from Massachusetts, spoke in support of the new Judiciary Act. He said that he would return the Federalist-era seat and add two to three additional judges to the Supreme Court.Although the opposition to federalism was expected, none of his fellow Democratic-Republicans supported it. They strongly opposed.Rep. John Randolph, a Democratic-Republican from Virginia, said, "Will not the history and the achievements of all Governments warrant that the creation of unnecessary officesis an evil greater to be feared than the abolitionof useless ones?"The common theme of opposition to the addition of new and unnecessary Supreme Court posts was that they would be detrimental to our democracy. It would undermine the independence of the judiciary, which, as U.S. Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton had written less that two decades ago, was a unique feature of our system government.Sen. John C. Calhoun, a Democratic-Republican from South Carolina, asked, "Should the Legislature with strong arm and by an assumed power destroy [judges] independence and their existence as one the pillars the Constitution?"Federalist Sen. Williams Wells, Delaware, stated, "But how much more should this measure fail, when its purpose is to destroy independence of the judges and open the door for the subversion our Constitution!"Senator John Breckinridge (D-Ky) argued that [N]o additional courts or judges could ever be justified or necessary unless existing courts or judges are incompetent to discharge the duties assigned to them.Both in 1802 and 1937, both presidents could have passed legislation to expand the Supreme Court. Although the Democratic-Republicans held a slim majority in 1802, Senate rules allowed for a simple majority to close debate and bring up a bill for a vote. In 1937, Democrats held a majority that was more than twice the required Senate vote to complete the task.However, the majority refused to place power above principle twice because, according to the Senate Judiciary Committees, judicial independence is immeasurably greater than the immediate adoption any legislation, no matter how beneficial.The Bidens Commission and Congress should follow suit and adopt the same position today.Do you have a comment about this article? Send us an email at [email protected] with your comments. We may publish them in our We Hear You section. Include the URL of the article or the headline, along with your name and the town/state.