WASHINGTON (AFP) — A group of congressional Democrats launched a daunting bid Thursday to expand the US Supreme Court from nine to 13 justices, angering Republicans who accused their rivals of attempting a power grab to enact President Joe Biden’s agenda.
The move appears to be an effort by the party’s progressive wing to pressure Biden on the explosive issue, less than one week after the president announced he was forming a commission to study reforming the high court, including the question of adding justices.
The Supreme Court sits as the final arbiter on fundamental American legal matters, which can include minority and LGBTQ rights, racism, the death penalty and electoral controversies — and its justices are appointed for life.
Several liberal Democrats have said expansion is necessary after Donald Trump gave the bench a 6-3 conservative majority with three picks, including one just eight days before the 2020 election and after millions of Americans had voted.
“We are here today because the United States Supreme Court is broken, it is out of balance, and it needs to be fixed,” Senator Ed Markey told reporters on the building’s front steps, adding that Americans worry the court is “no longer a neutral arbiter” of the nation’s constitutional questions.
The bill, which would allow Biden to fill all four new seats, appears doomed to fail — at least for now.
Asked whether she supports it, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters “no,” adding she did not have plans to bring it to a floor vote.
Although hesitant, Biden has agreed to consider reform, and last week ordered the creation of a bipartisan commission of scholars, former administration officials and retired federal judges to study the issue.
The White House has downplayed any potential frustration over the lawmakers’ rush to introduce their legislation, although spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden would wait to hear from the commission before forming a view.
Liberals point to recent decisions gutting the Voting Rights Act; opening the floodgates for corporate dark money to impact election campaigns; refusing to strike down voter suppression laws and upholding what critics see as gerrymandering to entrench Republican power.
“The rightwing majority on the Supreme Court has unraveled the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement to produce a government that does not look like, understand, or even pretend to represent the American people,” said congressman Mondaire Jones, one of the bill’s sponsors.
But the new legislation has raised eyebrows in Washington, where expanding the court, even with a commission’s study, would be a heavy lift in such a deeply divided Congress.
“Packing the court goes against everything we believe as Americans,” top House Republican Kevin McCarthy said on Twitter.
“This is about power and control. Democrats want to dismantle our institutions, including the courts, to enact their socialist agenda.”
The issue has been a political football since the controversial confirmation of conservative Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court following the September 2020 death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon.
Trump nominated Barrett just weeks before the November election that he lost to Biden.
Outraged Democrats called her Trump’s second “stolen” justice, as they pointed to the Republicans’ refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick in early 2016 on the grounds that it was too close to that year’s November presidential election.
Congress reformed the court several times in the 19th century, including in 1863 when Republicans expanded it to 10 seats. It was reduced to seven a few years later, but in 1869 it was expanded back to nine, where it has remained.
One of the strongest arguments against court-packing — the notion that once an expansion is undertaken by one party, the other party will retaliate in kind when it gains power — was mentioned by Biden himself during a 2019 primary debate.
“We add three justices. Next time around, we lose control, they add three justices,” Biden said. “We begin to lose any credibility the court has at all.”