A retired federal judge who served on what is often referred to as the second most powerful court in the country says he never saw his colleagues cast a vote based on their past partisan leanings or affiliation.
Thomas Griffith, a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for 15 years, said all of the disagreements among judges were about the law.
“Nobody was sitting there saying, ‘I’m going to stick it to Trump,’” he said Thursday during an Orrin G. Hatch Foundation webinar on preserving judicial integrity.
“Judges, in my experience, they just don’t think that way. The media thinks they think that way. I’m afraid many politicians think that they think that way. And the people who are urging an expansion of the court think that way.”
Griffith, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Washington, D.C., appellate lawyer Aimee Brown agreed during the hourlong panel discussion that expanding the size of the U.S. Supreme Court from its current nine members, or “court packing,” is more than a bad idea.
Some Democrats favor adding justices to the court, an idea that has intensified since the conservative court overturned Roe v. Wade last month. Congress set the number of justices at nine in 1869.
“If you alter that number now, you will inevitably, unavoidably and assuredly end up politicizing the court,” said Lee, the author of a new book about the Supreme Court titled, “Saving Nine.”
Should the court be expanded under Democratic control of Congress and the White House, it would become a “one-way ratchet,” meaning when Republicans were in power, they, too, would add justices to the court.
“I think what we probably would see a lot of one-upsmanship,” he said, adding the court would start to resemble an “intergalactic senate” out of a “Star Wars” movie. Rather than an independent panel, it would become a political body, Lee said.
Griffith, who served on the bipartisan Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court, said increasing the size of the court is a dangerous gambit that would turn judges into “partisans in robes.”
“It would be giving up, just giving up, on the ideal of a judge as an impartial adjudicator of decisions,” he said.
Court packing is a topic right now because a lot of people don’t like a lot of the rulings of the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts, so they think they can find judges who will make decisions to their viewpoint, Griffith said. A conservative, he said he doesn’t like all the Roberts’ court decisions, noting that some of his opinions were overturned by the Supreme Court.
The answer, Griffith said, isn’t to expand the court, but to come with better arguments.
Brown, who clerked for Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, as well as Griffith, said she is uncomfortable with the traction court packing has gained in the past few years but there’s quite a ways to go before it becomes a realistic possibility.
Adding four justices, as some Democrats have proposed, would cast a shadow over those justices and decisions in which their votes made a difference in the outcome, she said. Even if they do their best to interpret the law, she said, their motivation could be called into question.
“There’s a cynicism behind this move to expand the court that just turns judges into politicians in robes,” Griffith said.
Griffith said much was made of the fact that he introduced President Joe Biden’s pick for the court, the newly sworn Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, at her Senate confirmation hearings. That wouldn’t have been novel at all back in the day when the Senate nearly unanimously confirmed a president’s nominee.
The court is better when there is an Antonin Scalia and a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he said. As long as the nominee is competent, presidents should get the judges they choose, he said.
“Let’s let presidents get their judges,” Griffith said.
Lee, who voted against Jackson, said he would “love nothing more” than to confirm Democratic nominees to the Supreme Court, philosophical and political party differences notwithstanding.
“What I can’t do and what I won’t do is vote to confirm somebody in one of those positions if I believe they misapprehend their judicial power or are likely to abuse it ... or if they have otherwise exhibited bad judgment,” he said.
Lee, who sharply questioned Jackson during her hearings, said he laments that the confirmation process has become ugly and contentious. He said the first time he ever required security within the Capitol complex as well as at home and at his office was during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
The way to end the contention and go back to Democrats and Republicans supporting each other’s nominees is to agree on what the Supreme Court is and what it is not, he said.
The court, he said, doesn’t exist to decide policy disputes.
“And make no mistake, by trying to further politicize the court, they’re trying to entrench the extent to which the Supreme Court of the United States has over the last 49 years commandeered a major policy dispute, rendering it beyond dispute and taking it out of the hands of the American people and putting into a judicial oligarchy of sorts,” Lee said, referring to the abortion issue.
“That was an abuse of judicial power, one that I can’t countenance, and one that no American should countenance regardless of how they feel about abortion or regardless of what political party they belong to.”