U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson leads Dem’s Supreme Court expansion proposal

By: - April 15, 2021 4:10 pm

Georgia U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson is part of a new push to add four seats to the U.S. Supreme Court. A bill expanding the court was introduced Thursday. States Newsroom file photo

Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson is part of a new public push to expand the U.S. Supreme Court that proponents argue is necessary to rebalance the nation’s highest court.

The Lithonia Democrat joined House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York and other congressional Democrats in front of the Supreme Court building Thursday to announce a bill adding four justices and creating a 13-seat court.

The politically explosive proposal was introduced Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives, where it is unlikely to move.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters she has no plans to let the measure advance, deferring instead to President Joe Biden’s recently announced commission tasked with studying the court and the effect of changes, such as expanding its size.

“It’s a big step,” Pelosi said. “It’s not out of the question. It has been done before in the history of our country a long time ago, and the growth of our country, the size of our country, the growth of our challenges in terms of the economy, et cetera, might necessitate such a thing.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday that Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to wait to read the report from the bipartisan commission he created just last week through an executive order.

The president, she said, “believes that it’s important to take a look at a range of points of view, whether they are progressive or conservative.” The panel is not expected to issue specific recommendations in its report later this year.

Johnson and others called Thursday’s announcement a first step toward persuading Americans who are accustomed to a nine-member court that changes are needed. Congress last grew the size of the court shortly after the Civil War.

Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson says expanding the U.S. Supreme Court could increase the number of cases that make it to the nation’s highest court. Screenshot of Facebook livestream

“There is a need for reform of the Supreme Court and all of its processes, and it may not be as popular today as it will be as we move forward,” said Johnson, who chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet. “This is a movement that has begun. It began before today. But today is an important moment in this movement, and I believe that this movement will pick up support.”

Proponents say the changes are necessary after Republicans held up a Supreme Court nomination put forward by former President Barack Obama in the spring of 2016, only to approve outgoing President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the week before the Nov. 3 election.

The maneuver ultimately gave Trump three nominees to the Supreme Court, resulting in a 6-3 conservative majority. The gains are considered a major triumph among supporters for the one-term president.

“Some people will say we’re ‘packing the court.’ We’re not packing the court. We’re unpacking it,” Nadler said. “Sen. (Mitch) McConnell and the Republicans packed the court over the last couple of years.”

McConnell, now the Senate minority leader, quickly criticized the proposal.

“Democrats keep showing they don’t care about norms and institutions, only power. The latest example: a bill to pack the Supreme Court and destroy its legitimacy to guarantee the rulings liberals want,” McConnell said.

The case for the proposal, though, goes beyond fixing what the Democrats see as a GOP-imposed imbalance on the court. Supporters of an expanded Supreme Court argue the nation’s highest court has not grown in step with the rest of the country’s judicial system, pointing to the 13 circuits that create an uneven workload for emergency applications submitted to the nine-member Supreme Court.

Johnson, who is a former defense attorney and magistrate judge, said a larger bench could also increase the number of cases that make it to the court and empower it to work more effectively.

“Getting a case in front of the Supreme Court starts to resemble winning the lottery for anyone without connections,” Johnson said. “This scarcity has led to a cottage industry where litigants who can afford to do so spend enormous time and enormous energy and enormous money in rallying others to file friend-of-court briefs – amicus briefs – to urge the Supreme Court to agree to hear a case.”

The measure, though, faces an uphill battle even among Democrats outside the White House.

“I’ve heard a lot of people, even on the left, expressing pessimism and saying that we’ve lost the courts for a generation,” Aaron Belkin, director of the group Take Back the Court, said at Thursday’s press conference. “No, we haven’t lost the courts for a generation.

“We are going to win the fight to rebalance the Supreme Court because we have to. Progressive fights are always hard. But if we don’t win this fight, Jan. 6 is going to be our future and it’s going to be the tip of the iceberg of our future.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.