Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Most U.S. citizens probably don’t realize that their right to vote is at serious risk right now. There’s a case currently before the Supreme Court, Moore v. Harper, that, if decided in favor of the North Carolina Republicans who brought the case, would potentially reshape the workings of American government and undermine our very democracy.
Most people are aware of the Republican Party’s attempts to suppress the votes of Black people and other people of color, especially, but not exclusively, in the South. But the biggest threat to voting rights today is coming from the conservative faction on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Over the past several decades, conservative partisan extremists have hijacked our federal court system, and on the Supreme Court, have wielded their unchecked power to dismantle the Voting Rights Act, reproductive rights, and the rights of workers to organize. Moore v. Harper, which hinges on a fringe legal theory that many scholars say should never have been taken up by the court, demonstrates how far SCOTUS has gone off the rails. But if we want to get SCOTUS back on track, we first need to know how it got derailed in the first place.
During former President Donald Trump’s administration, and with the help of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and shadowy groups like the Federalist Society, more than 200 far-right-wing judges were installed on the federal bench and the Supreme Court who are hostile to civil rights, voting rights, anti-discrimination laws, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, women, workers, and the environment. These judges and justices are overwhelmingly straight, white, and male. The federal courts today are 74% white and 67% male, while our country is 40% people of color and 51% women. To date, these radicals have come dangerously close to shaping the entire legal system to reflect their reactionary views. When it comes to our nation’s fail-safe of checks and balances, conservative extremists hold nothing sacred.
In order to rebalance the court, we at The Center for Popular Democracy, a nonpartisan action group, are proposing several non-ideological reforms to the U.S. Supreme Court. These reforms include a mandatory code of ethics for justices that requires transparency, recusals in conflicts of interest, and stock divestitures. Moreover, it’s time to expand the court and impose term limits.
So how do we rebalance SCOTUS? First, let’s start by holding justices ethically accountable.
Most citizens don’t know that SCOTUS isn’t bound by ethics rules or constitutional accountability. The nine justices of the Supreme Court are the only judges in the federal system who are not bound by the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges. These days, it’s a blaring weakness in our three-pronged system of checks and balances.
Last month, The New York Times reported that the Supreme Court Historical Society, a charity founded by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in 1974, has attracted corporate donors who had cases before the court. But while nothing’s stopping the justices from adopting a code of ethics, proponents of court reform urge Congress to throw its statutory weight behind meaningful institutional changes to the high court. The Supreme Court should not just let the justices police themselves.
Second, Congress must expand the court to balance it.
After the decades-long takeover process by the conservative right, we’re now subject to a 6–3 extremist supermajority. These justices appointed by three Republican presidents have ignored decades of legal precedent to take away our constitutional rights. We’re now facing the most conservative court in recent history, and the only way to restore balance is to add seats.
If Congress passes the Judiciary Act of 2021, it can expand the number of justices by four. Today, there are 13 circuit courts. Court expansion by four seats would set the number of justices to match the 13 circuit courts. The bill, introduced by Democrats Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson of Georgia and Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, is currently in subcommittee and has little chance of Republican support. But we’ll continue pushing for support in the next two years until we regain control of the House.
The Constitution doesn’t prescribe a set number of justices. When the Supreme Court first convened in 1790, there were six justices. The Constitution leaves it to Congress to set the number of Supreme Court justices, and Congress has changed that number seven times throughout American history.
Finally, justices must have term limits.
Justices may serve for life (as do all federal judges) with little to no accountability, and they politically time their retirements. Term limits would limit partisan influence, giving presidents the same opportunities to appoint justices each term. We need a Supreme Court that is more democratically representative.
Throughout the Trump era, Republicans made the federal judiciary an extension of their party. The Center for Popular Democracy and our allies led over a month of daily protests in Washington, D.C., to stop the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. We showed up to interrupt circuit court confirmation hearings for Trump’s lower court nominees. We interrupted the Federalist Society’s annual dinner. And we warned voters that the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett was a breach of the trust—a violation of democracy itself.
Under Biden, our members came to Washington from across the country to lobby Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin, and ultimately celebrated Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation—a rare win! Biden has nominated the most demographically diverse set of judicial candidates in history. Over the next two years, the Senate needs to confirm a record-breaking number of lower court justices to counteract decades of right-wing skewing.
Never before have we seen such a mass movement to organize and mobilize and speak out in support of our courts. This is the moment for us to rise up together and make the sweeping changes needed to create a court that is accountable to the people, not to special interests and extremists. Our democracy depends on it.
Julia Peter is co-Director of Advocacy and Mobilization at the Center for Popular Democracy. She's held various organizing and campaign roles over the past 15 years, including helping to organize the Kavanaugh protests, leading CPD's work around reforming the Federal Judiciary, and building the organizing project, The Birddog Nation. She has a BA in Political Science from UNC Wilmington and MA in International Affairs from the New School. She can be reached at: https://www.birddognation.org/