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Legislatively Speaking

Does Expanding the U.S. Supreme Court Really Change Anything?

Lena C. Taylor

Just the facts, mam. This is a movie line I remember all too well from the remake of “Dragnet,” featuring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. It represented a clean and clear way to solve a case, get at the heart of the law, and arrive at a resolution that couldn’t be disputed. After all, your response was based on “the facts.” So, here’s the question: if more people hear the facts, do you have a better chance at getting an outcome that most can agree with?

It was this question that made the idea of law school so attractive. Lady Justice with her blindfold, holding her sword with her scales teetering toward the moral arc of justice. The idea of the law and the constitution was fairly reassuring, until you realize that laws are only as good as those who make them and those charged with enforcing them.

Historically, we have clear examples of my assertion. Starting with the origins of this country and the legal decision to declare Black people three-fifths of a human being, we can quickly see how laws can be unjust. Separate but equal laws, involving issues of race and gender, serve as another example. More recently, I can’t help but turn my attention to the makeup of our judicial systems.

In particular, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court recently struck down a statewide emergency order that included the mandate that residents wear a mask in public spaces, to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. The 4-3 decision split along ideological lines. Many residents were left wondering, how did seven justices look at the same information and interpret the laws differently. Like state courts, the United States Supreme Court often issues similar rulings. Conservative judges digest information one way and liberal leaning justices interpret the law another way. In the end, the confidence of the judicial system is eroded. You can almost predict the way a ruling will fall based on the makeup of the court. Often it feels like “facts” are just an impediment to rewriting law to fit a political agenda.

This week, we saw the introduction of Judiciary Act of 2021, which would expand the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court from nine to 13. The bill’s authors have said they are trying to undo damage done to the court by Republican’s intent on packing the court with conservative justices. The only problem is: what stops the court from being expanded again, when control switches from one political party to another? It was frustrating to watch the outright disgusting behavior of former U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, when it came to blocking judicial appointments of then President Barack Obama. It’s more harmful to know that if we further tamper with the makeup of the court, we could set in motion a form of political volleyball, in which no team is the permanent winner. In fact, it is our justice system that will lose.

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