To Tame a Far-Right Supreme Court, Let’s Revive This Forgotten Proposal from 1922

tags: Supreme Court, SCOTUS, Judicial Review, Amy Coney Barrett

The nar­row­ly ​“tex­tu­al­ist” and ​“orig­i­nal­ist” prin­ci­ples to which Bar­rett sub­scribes, inevitably car­ry con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal impli­ca­tions. From such a mind­set, any leg­is­la­tion that would expand health insur­ance, union rights, envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion, as well as abor­tion access is like­ly in deep trou­ble. For Feld­man, how­ev­er, Barrett’s ​“views about how to inter­pret the law that I think are wrong and, in cer­tain respects, mis­guid­ed” are more than bal­anced by her being among the best and bright­est in her cohort. Ah, if only we could use the LSATs to choose all our fed­er­al officials!

What steps might a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gress, take in 2021 to pro­tect the coun­try from a judi­cial super-major­i­ty defined by Jus­tices Roberts, Ali­to, Thomas, Gor­such, Kavanaugh, and Bar­rett? Most jour­nal­is­tic com­men­tary has cen­tered on ​“court-pack­ing” ideas harken­ing back to Pres­i­dent Franklin Roosevelt’s ulti­mate­ly foiled attempt in 1937 to expand the court from nine to as many as fif­teen jus­tices to pre­vent its undo­ing his entire New Deal pro­gram. This was (and remains) a messy solu­tion, for it turns pub­lic scruti­ny from an unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, reac­tionary judi­cial branch to a seem­ing­ly over­reach­ing exec­u­tive authority. 

In FDR’s case, his­to­ri­ans sug­gest, the mere threat of rad­i­cal judi­cial surgery proved enough to tem­per the impulse towards judi­cial review, and for decades the court large­ly refrained from coun­ter­mand­ing major eco­nom­ic law-mak­ing by state and fed­er­al leg­isla­tive majori­ties. On the oth­er hand, the bit­ter polit­i­cal after-taste from the court-pack­ing fight helped to fuel a Repub­li­can resur­gence in Con­gres­sion­al elec­tions to come.

But his­tor­i­cal antecedents to the court-pack­ing plan offer oth­er keys to a still-use­able past. By the 1920s, the Supreme Court had tru­ly become a bul­wark of cor­po­rate priv­i­lege, act­ing against lim­i­ta­tions on union black­list­ing in Kansas in 1915, over­turn­ing the fed­er­al child labor law in 1918, and throw­ing out a min­i­mum wage for women work­ers in Wash­ing­ton D.C. in 1923. Chief Jus­tice and ex-Pres­i­dent William Howard Taft (1921−1930) cheered on such moves by open­ly rail­ing against ​“social­ist raids upon prop­er­ty rights.”

As the courts increas­ing­ly detached them­selves from pub­lic opin­ion on key issues of nation­al wel­fare, they came under increas­ing crit­i­cism from pro­gres­sive cir­cles. Indeed, with a focus on mis-use of injunc­tions and con­tempt cita­tions in labor dis­putes, Theodore Roosevelt’s Pro­gres­sive Par­ty in 1912 pri­or­i­tized ​“restric­tion of the pow­er of the courts as shall leave to the peo­ple the ulti­mate author­i­ty to deter­mine fun­da­men­tal ques­tions of social wel­fare and pub­lic pol­i­cy.” The Social­ist Par­ty led by Eugene V. Debs went fur­ther, advo­cat­ing a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to abol­ish judi­cial review of leg­isla­tive acts altogether.

Two tan­gi­ble nation­al reform ideas fol­lowed in the next decade. As doc­u­ment­ed by his­to­ri­an Steven F. Law­son, Wisconsin’s Pro­gres­sive Sen­a­tor Robert ​“Fight­ing Bob” La Fol­lette intro­duced a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment in 1922 (nev­er put to a Con­gres­sion­al vote) where­by Con­gress would have the right to re-enact –and thus enact for good — any law ruled uncon­sti­tu­tion­al by the Supreme Court. In the same year, Repub­li­can Sen. William Borah of Ida­ho pro­posed a dif­fer­ent reform tack: hop­ing to restrict judi­cial review to only the most egre­gious vio­la­tions of indi­vid­ual rights, his plan required any judi­cial over­ride by the Supreme Court to car­ry at min­i­mum a 7 to 2 court majority.

Beyond grap­pling with a sin­gle Supreme Court appoint­ment, it behooves today’s pro­gres­sives to chal­lenge all those still infect­ed by what the emi­nent judi­cial biog­ra­ph­er Alpheus Mason in 1958 labeled the ​“cult of the judi­cial robe.” As La Fol­lette apt­ly warned, “[Should the Court keep] the final and con­clu­sive author­i­ty to deter­mine what laws Con­gress may pass, then, obvi­ous­ly, the Court is the real ruler of the coun­try exact­ly the same as the absolute King would be.” 

Read entire article at In These Times