We Must Take Back the Courts

More and more, we see politics influence the decisions made in our courtrooms. Policies that impact the lives of millions of Americans are debated and decided on by judges who are too often driven by ideology, not principle or the rule of law. This is because our federal courts have been systematically hijacked by Republican partisan extremists in the last few decades. Without urgently needed court reform, we won’t be able to fight back against the politicization and radical conservatism in our courts.

From 2016 to 2020, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed over 200 federal judges — radical conservatives hostile to civil rights, voting rights, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, women, workers, and the environment. Not only that, but McConnell eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, and ignored every norm of bipartisan procedure, to ensure that Donald Trump could appoint 3 Supreme Court justices in just 4 years.

Most of Trump’s judicial appointees were ideological extremists, incapable of fairly meting out justice and wholly unqualified for their positions. For example in 2017, Trump nominated Leonard Steven Grasz to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Not only did the American Bar Association (ABA), an independent and nonpartisan body, unanimously deem Grasz unqualified to be a federal judge, but Grasz is well-known for his extreme right-wing views and efforts to curb LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights. Nevertheless, Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate ignored the ABA and appointed Grasz to a lifetime position on a powerful federal court.

But it’s not just that courts are reflecting extreme right-wing views — judges quite simply do not reflect the makeup of the American people and conservative court packing has had an increasingly devastating effect on the diversity of the federal judiciary. 60% of this country is white, but nearly 75% of our judges are white. When it comes to gender we see the same. Men make up slightly less than 50% of the country, but 67% of judges are male. Fully, 85% of Trump’s judicial appointees were white and 76% were men.

The only way to repair our broken court system is by passing bold reform. Where do we start? Expanding the Supreme Court. There’s no constitutional requirement or law that limits us to nine Supreme Court Justices, and we need to add at least four justices in order to counteract the conservative takeover of the Supreme Court. We also need to place term limits on justices, which would regularize and depoliticize the process of choosing new justices. As we well remember in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, vacancies are treated like all out war because the stakes surrounding replacing a justice for life are so high.

We must also expand the lower federal courts. This would give the Biden-Harris Administration and administrations to come the opportunity to increase diversity on the bench. Expanding the lower courts would also address the long backlog of cases in our courts, making sure justice is being served in a timely manner.

Lastly, we must create ethics and transparency requirements for the Supreme Court. Unlike all other federal judges, Supreme Court Justices are not required to follow a code of ethics. No one is above the law, certainly not those serving on the highest court in the land. Congress must require a code of ethics, improve disclosure requirements, and establish a method for justices to recuse themselves when cases present a conflict of interest.

In the years ahead, the 6-3 conservative Supreme Court will hear cases affecting millions of Americans, on issues ranging from voting rights and money in politics, to health care and racial justice. We must act on the opportunity to reform and rebalance the Supreme Court so that those making decisions on behalf of millions are representative of our nation and selected by someone supported by the majority of our nation.