Guest Commentary: Abolish the Filibuster and Pack the Court

The stakes could not be higher following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

By Jay Willis

I should start by saying that I assume, for now, that Republicans in the Senate will rush to confirm a successor to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal stalwart and pioneer of gender equality who passed away on Friday at the age of 87.

Sure, many of those same Republican senators repeatedly, emphatically declared four short years ago that the Senate does not confirm Supreme Court nominees during an election year, conjuring up a “rule” for such candidacies fueled by equal parts political expediency and a cheerful willingness to make things up. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” explained Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in February 2016, hours after the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Since Donald Trump took up residence in the White House, however, Republican lawmakers have ably proven themselves unwilling to demonstrate anything resembling intellectual honesty or moral courage. By Election Day 2020, or, at the very latest, by Inauguration Day 2021, one conservative ideologue or another will likely occupy Ginsburg’s seat on the bench, after solemnly pledging during confirmation hearings to “respect precedent,” “only call balls and strikes,” and “uphold the rule of law,” all while mentally composing gleeful majority opinions to gut reproductive rights, rubber-stamp the Trump administration’s latest bit of xenophobia-as-public-policy, destroy the power of working people to organize, and gerrymander nonwhite people out of electoral existence. It is my fondest hope that, by some miracle, this scenario does not come to pass.

But recent history, to put it delicately, has given me little reason to be optimistic.

Already, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has called on the Senate to wait to confirm Ginsburg’s replacement until after the election. This is good and correct; it is also not far enough. Biden and Senate Democrats must lay out the stakes of the war to come now, in clear and unambiguous terms: If Republicans fill the seat, the next unified Democratic government—which could, in theory, come as soon as January—will abolish the filibuster and pack the Court.

Such proposals are hardly new, but especially since McConnell’s successful theft of Scalia’s seat, the prospect of adding a justice or two or five has gone from reliable law review article fodder to borderline table stakes for progressive politicians. Expanding the Court’s membership would not be as difficult as it might sound: Article III of the Constitution established “one Supreme Court,” but does not prescribe its size. Instead, the Framers entrusted those details to Congress, which settled at nine after brief dalliances with five, six, seven, and ten. But there is nothing sacred about the status quo; as I’ve written previously, changing it requires only a legislature willing to pass a bill, and a president willing to sign it.

Packing the Court would not retroactively return Justice Neil Gorsuch’s seat to the Democratic side of the ledger, or remove Republican Justice Brett Kavanaugh from the seat he won only after making perhaps the most nakedly political appeal for confirmation in the Court’s history. But it would certainly dilute the impact of their appointments, and give the new few decades of groundbreaking, lifesaving, planet-preserving progressive initiatives—Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and so on—a fighting chance at surviving judicial review.

One lawmaker gets it. After news of Ginsburg’s death broke, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey made clear his position on what the Democratic caucus should do next. “Mitch McConnell set the precedent. No Supreme Court vacancies filled in an election year,” wrote Markey, the upper chamber’s architect of the Green New Deal. “If he violates it, when Democrats control the Senate in the next Congress, we must abolish the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court.”

This is not to suggest that this is or should be a bluff—a savvy threat that will cow Republicans into submission, jolting them out of the depths of grinning shamelessness in which they’ve taken up semi-permanent residence. Taking over the federal judiciary is the conservative movement’s most important task, and Ginsburg’s death leaves it on the cusp of succeeding beyond Lindsey Graham’s wildest dreams. Even if Democrats were to control the White House and both chambers of Congress, there is no element of any progressive wish list that this Court will allow to stand. A solid 6-3 Republican majority, anchored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the 53-year-old Gorsuch, the 55-year-old Kavanaugh, and a fifty-something Federalist Society member to be named shortly would gum up the works of government for a generation, at the very least.

It is for this reason that the GOP’s scramble to fill Ginsburg’s seat are all but assured to be successful: As hypocritical as doing so will be, they cannot afford to turn back. In 2016, McConnell bet his entire legacy on the Supreme Court, and watched it pay off in spectacular fashion. He has come too far to fold his cards in the name of legislative comity or procedural fairness. Replacing Ginsburg, the Court’s greatest champion of reproductive rights, is a goal anti-choice conservatives have been chasing for years. If anything, the slightly accelerated timeline will just make its culmination that much sweeter.

So far, Biden has not made the Supreme Court a central aspect of his candidacy. Although he has pledged, if elected, to appoint the first Black woman to the Court, addressing the colliding crises of climate change, a deadly pandemic, and the ensuing economic catastrophe have understandably dominated his campaign-trail pitch. When asked, he has expressed skepticism about the wisdom of Court-packing, fearing a never-ending tit-for-tat struggle he feels would inevitably ensue. “We had three justices. Next time around, we lose control, they add three justices,” he said last year. “We begin to lose any credibility the court has at all.”

It’s worth questioning his implication that the Supreme Court, particularly under Trump, is a credible institution in the first place, or deserves to be treated as such. But in any event, the time for this sort of handwringing is over. A nine-justice Court could permanently entrench minority rule in this country, illegitimately propping up a dying party and a dying ideology that depends on overt appeals to racism and bigotry for its continued electoral relevance. A Court with more seats is not guaranteed to solve this problem. But at this point, it is, more or less, the only hope to do it.

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.  First publish at The Appeal.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Keith Olsen

    Already, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has called on the Senate to wait to confirm Ginsburg’s replacement until after the election. 

    Biden was against replacing a Supreme Court justice in an election year in 1992, for it in 2016 and now against it.  So he was against it, before he was for it and now against it again.

    1. David Greenwald

      Had Garland gone through in 2016, I would have been fine with it going through now. But if the only principle here is might makes right or the other side is hypocritical, then I am all for doubling down.

      1. Keith Olsen

        If it wasn’t for the Harry Reid rule, “In November 2013, Senate Democrats led by Harry Reid used the nuclear option to eliminate the 60-vote rule” which led to the nuclear option now being used for Supreme Court nominees we wouldn’t be where we are now.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Funny (not “ha-ha”)… SCOTUS was given lifetime appointments to avoid political entanglements… yeah, right, that worked out good… but some exceptions… one notable one in my lifetime… Earl Warren… with a bit of research, could find others… Roberts gets close to it… he seems to follow the law, and his conscience… Anthony Kennedy approached that too… Warren shifted from incarcerating all Japanese Americans during WWII, as Gov, to being an advocate for Civil Rights on the Court… go figure…

          Seems like Demo/Rep, Conserv/Lib are the litmus tests… not knowledge of law, or personal scruples/conscience… more is the pity, and a risk to the tripod of the branches of Gov’t… SCOTUS was supposed to be the impartial “referee”… no more… huge loss…

          Oh, and now we have to have ‘tokens’ for ‘diversity’…

  2. Keith Olsen

    Poll shows Americans are in favor of replacing a justice in an election year.

    The question of holding hearings and a vote on confirming a new justice immediately became an issue with Justice Ginsburg’s death, as it had following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. In this poll, conducted in the days before Ginsburg’s death, a substantial majority of respondents of both parties say that if a vacancy occurred during the 2020 election year, the Senate should hold hearings on a nominee, with 67 percent saying hearings should be held and 32 percent saying they should not be held. Views on holding hearings do not vary much by partisanship, as shown in Table 3. This table will provide a baseline from before there was a vacancy against which to measure any future change in partisan views, if a nomination is made and considered.

    1. Eric Gelber

      So now you pay attention to polls? The public was overwhelmingly in favor of having Garland’s nomination heard in 2016.

      This is the height of hypocrisy.

      How about we apply the Garland rule this time to potentially even things up and then settle on a permanent rule for the future? Naw. It’s all about power to the GOP.

      1. Keith Olsen

        This is the height of hypocrisy.

        Speaking of hypocrisy, so it’s all about power for the GOP except when Democrats exhibit their power when they have it?

        Got it.



        1. Keith Olsen

          Deal with it, Trump “might” get another appointment.

          You just don’t like it because the shoe’s on the other foot.

          Curious, did you complain when Harry Reid changed the Senate rules?


        2. Richard McCann

          Keith O

          You have to go first in answering Eric’s question before he’s obligated to answer yours. You started the conversation with a statement and you have been challenged. You don’t also gain the right to avoid that challenge and demand an answer to your subsequent challenge.

    2. Bill Marshall

      1864… an election year… a Supreme Court justice dies… Lincoln wanted to wait until after the elections to select a replacement… the ‘Radical Republicans’ pretty much forced him to proceed (here, the radical republicans have a strong supporter, in POTUS)… the appointee chosen was Chase who lead the impeachment efforts against A Johnson… who wanted to follow Lincoln’s hope of “with malice towards none, charity for all”… lead to a ‘reconstruction’ that had a huge “blow-back”…

  3. Richard McCann

    Schumer is already hinting at this:

    I’ll go further. Given the erosion in adherence to both legal strictures (see Trump’s repeated end runs) and the norms that underlie the adherence to Constitution, if Trump wins and the Senate remains in the control of the GOP, we are likely to see a rapid erosion of democracy and a plunge into autocracy. Trump has laid the groundwork already and appears to be just waiting confirmation in the election to further justify his actions as a “mandate”. So the Senate Democrats have nothing to lose by going full bore. More on the available options, including giving statehood to both DC and Puerto Rico to better balance the Senate.

  4. Keith Olsen

    It looks like it’s going to happen.

    “We got the votes to confirm Justice Ginsburg’s replacement before the election,” Graham said. “We are going to move forward in the committee. We’re going to report the nomination out of the committee to the floor of the United States Senate so we can vote before the election. That’s the constitutional process.”

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