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Sunday, September 20, 2020

New Courts (Updated)

It is said that the change of one Justice changes "the Court." Not at the the obvious macro level of partisan/ideological divides and case outcomes, but in small and incalculable ways involving positions and interactions among Justices. The Court in October 2017 was going to be different that the Court in January 2016, whether Merrick Garland or Neil Gorsuch was junior-most Justice, even if case outcomes look more similar with Gorsuch than they would have with Garland.

On that metric, we are about to get our fifth and sixth different Courts since October Term 2015: A nine-Justice Court with Scalia until February 2016; an eight-Justice Court until April 2017; a nine-Justice Court with Gorsuch until October 2018; a nine-Justice Court with Kavanaugh until two days ago; an eight-Justice Court until someone (I continue to believe Amy Coney Barrett) is confirmed (I presume this will not happen by October 5, but I put nothing past Mitch McConnell); and a nine-Justice Court with Barrett (or whomever). And I am will make a weak prediction that Breyer retires by summer 2022 if Biden wins and the Democrats retake the Senate--making it seven Courts over about eight terms.

Which makes the period from 1994, when Breyer joined the Court, to 2005, when Roberts became Chief, unique. There was one Court for 11 years and one month, the second-longest-serving Court. The longest is an 11 1/2-year gap between the appointment of Justice Duvall in 1812 and the appointment of Justice Story in 1823--another universe in terms of the Court's prestige and power and the attention paid to it. Otherwise, there have been mulitple five-ish-year Courts throughout history, including one between Kagan's appointment and Scalia's death. I wonder if we will see this kind of stability any time soon.

I also wonder whether the recentness of this anomaly influences some of the new opposition to life tenure. Despite more individual Justices serving ever-longer terms and increasing life expectancies, there still is (sometimes rapid) turnover within the Court. Barrett is 48 and Barbara Lagoa, the other leading candidate, is 52. But even adding either to Kavanaugh and Gorsuch (both 55 or younger) and a hyp0thetical young Biden appointee, it leaves two Justices in their 70s and two over 65. It seems unlikely that we will see another decade-long Court.

The arguments against life tenure shift from longer-lasting Courts to the randomness of timing and who makes appointments. It seems insane that Donald Trump will make more appointments in one term as Obama, Bush II, and Clinton each made in two terms.* The real benefit of the Carrington Plan for 18-year terms is regulating the appointments process--every President gets the same number of appointments in the same time served and on the same regular schedule.* On the other hand, the notion of a "new" Court every two years supports critics of the plan, who worry about the instability the system would create. Of course, we have been getting a version of that system, accidentally and with the attendant political collisions and overreactions, for six years.

[*] Even FDR is prey to this temporal randomness. We accept that it makes sense that FDR appointed 8 Justices, since he was President for 12 years. But note the timing. He made zero appointments in his first term (during a 5+-year Court between the appointments of Cardozo and Black), five appointments in his second, and three in his third. Had FDR been a one-termer, he would have had the same effect on the Court as Jimmy Carter. Had he not violated the two-term norm (or had the 22d Amendment been in place in 1940), he still would have appointed the majority of the Court.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 20, 2020 at 01:12 PM in Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

Sorry, don't mean to double post, but does this plan address what happens if a Justice not scheduled for retirement in a president's term either retires or dies?

Is the idea that, once admitted to the court, the justices would legally be unable to retire? Or that a death would go unfilled so that a president did not--by sheer accident--get more picks?

It seems this system is open to some real gamesmanship that will make the plan moot.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Sep 20, 2020 1:25:53 PM

"Of course, we have been getting a version of that, accidentally, for six years."

And it's not getting rave reviews. So it feels odd to institutionalize it.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Sep 20, 2020 1:22:41 PM

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