On today's BradCast, some facts --- real ones, not Mitch McConnell's --- about our nation's healthy history of changing the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court, which we have done seven different times over the past 238 years since our founding. [Audio link to full show is posted below.]
But, first up quickly today, Donald Trump has taken yet another hit from the courts on his attempt to undermine the Affordable Care Act and the U.S. healthcare system. It's the second such court loss he's faced over the past week, with the first court nixing his attempt to allow work requirements under Medicaid in Kentucky and Arkansas, and the second on Thursday night finding his allowance of cheap health insurance policies that don't meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") to be unlawful. That second ruling comes courtesy of a well-respected George W. Bush-appointed federal judge who is rarely reversed by appellate courts.
Next, a preview of a very important election on Tuesday in Wisconsin for its state Supreme Court. Its the first of two elections to the high court in the Badger State (one on Tuesday and the other next year on the same day as the Democratic Presidential primary election in WI) that could result in a progressive-leaning majority, at long last, being restored to WI's high court. Control of that court is wildly important for both the state and the nation on a number of fronts, which we discuss today, including voting rights before the 2020 election, redistricting for the next decade after the 2020 Census, and the rollback of a host of anti-union and other hard-right policies enacted during the gerrymandered Scott Walker years.
Tuesday's match-up is between progressive-backed Judge Lisa Neubauer and Koch Industries/Chamber of Commerce-backed Judge Brian Hagedorn, a protege of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Hagedorn has called Planned Parenthood a "wicked organization" devoted to "killing babies", described the NAACP as "a disgrace to America", and argued "The idea that homosexual behavior is different than bestiality as a constitutional matter is unjustifiable."
But while voters in WI directly select their Supreme Court at the ballot box (which I am no fan of), the U.S. Supreme Court is a different matter. After Senate Republicans stole what should have been a Democratic majority on the court in 2016 by refusing to even hold a vote on Judge Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell held the seat vacant for a year before unilaterally changing Senate rules to do away with the filibuster to allow Neil Gorsuch to be seated on the high court. Later, under those same changed rules, the far-rightwing, accused sexual-predator Brett Kavanaugh was similarly added to the Court, likely cementing a generation of GOP-control.
In response, many progressives --- even Presidential candidates --- are now calling for the expansion of SCOTUS if Democrats can regain control of the U.S. House, Senate and White House next year, in order to restore a liberal-leaning majority that arguably should have been theirs in 2016. Naturally, McConnell is already decrying the idea, describing it on Thursday, ironically enough, as "an unprincipled power grab...that would threaten the rule of law and our American Judicial system." He cites the attempted court packing by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to support his notion that changing the size of the Court is "a thoroughly discredited idea".
We're joined today by Wisconsin attorney and former state Supreme Court nominee TIM BURNS for both thoughts on Tuesday's crucial election in the state ("The stakes are huge," he explains) and the little-known history of "court packing" in the U.S. More specifically, Burns, who wrote about the issue recently at The New Republic, discusses the seven different times since the founding of our republic when the number of seats on the U.S. Supreme Court has been changed by Congress, including under one of our founders Thomas Jefferson and even under Republican Party icon Abraham Lincoln.
Burns, who serves on the board of the progressive Wisconsin Justice Initiative and the national board of the American Constitution Society, argues that contrary to misleading claims by McConnell and fellow Republicans, changes made to the size of SCOTUS by the Legislative and Executive Branches, as called for by the U.S. Constitution, have been healthy for the nation, often coming "hand in hand with some of the most vibrant periods of our democracy," and in response to the out-sized growth of corporate power.
"There have always been these predictions of the utter ruin of our democracy if the size of the Court is changed," Burns tells me. "The truth is, the Court's been viewed favorably even after its size has changed." And while he says that it's "entirely possible" that Republicans could then do the same thing once they regain power, "that doesn't spell the doom of our democracy. It says that our democracy is working. The political power rests with the voter instead of nine lawyers, judges on a Supreme Court."
Perhaps that's why Senate GOPers this week have introduced a measure calling for a Constitutional Amendment to keep the number of seats on the Court at nine. Good luck with that, boys.
Most interesting, however, may be Burns' fascinating recounting of what happened when FDR attempted unsuccessfully to expand the Court in what McConnell falsely described as an historic event that resulted in the idea of "Court Packing" becoming "synonymous in American history with the idea of an unprincipled power grab". What actually happened in the 1930s, and why the Court was ultimately not expanded under FDR is a fascinating bit of lost history and quite different from the way it has been described in lore. The truth places new calls to expand the Court today, during this period of unprecedented partisanship and class-divide under a hard-Right SCOTUS, into a very different light and perspective as this debate kicks off both in the nation and among Democrats vying for the 2020 Presidential nomination....
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