Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an American treasure. In her life and legal career she was a barrier-breaker, a fierce advocate for her clients and the causes in which she believed, a role model, and ultimately a cultural icon. Justice Ginsburg’s loss will be impossible to measure — except perhaps in one stark, numerical way: The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will likely move from 5-4 to 6-3 “conservative.”
This will have an enormous impact on the practice of criminal defense.
Over the past several decades and especially most recently, SCOTUS decisions (often with one or two conservative justices siding with liberals or vice versa) have narrowly upheld constitutional protections in 4th, 5th, 6th and 14th Amendment cases. These will be fewer and further between if SCOTUS stays with nine justices.
The point of this thought-exercise is not to suggest that our President and United States Senate should hold off nominating and confirming Amy Coney Barrett until after the 2020 presidential election. They’re not going to do that. Instead, as concerned citizens and criminal law practitioners we should be thinking of ways to safeguard the rights of the criminally accused in this highly charged political environment.
There is no shortage of suggestions for how to re-balance SCOTUS or remove it from the political arena. Please add mine to the list. It may strike you as slightly different.
I believe most Americans want a balanced SCOTUS, as opposed to a political tribunal that tilts in favor of one side or the other. To me, this begs a fundamental question: Why does SCOTUS have to have an odd number of justices?
There is nothing in the Constitution that specifies the number of SCOTUS justices. Most advocates of court expansion (derisively called “court packing”) favor adding more justices to achieve an odd number that favors their side. Some liberal advocates are talking about forging a 13-justice Court, with a 7-6 advantage for the liberal camp.
But again, why does it have to be an odd number? Is it because SCOTUS is supposed to be the final arbiter of legal questions and no one wants a tie?
The vast, overwhelming number of constitutional law cases in America do not reach the Supreme Court. If a criminal case includes a crucial, debatable constitutional issue and not merely a fact dispute, and the case even reaches the appellate level, it is usually decided in a state court of appeals. In federal criminal cases, district and circuit courts typically resolve constitutional issues. A successful petition for certiorari is rare even in some of the most hotly disputed criminal law topics.
On occasion, such as in the aftermaths of death or resignation of a SCOTUS justice or when a justice is recused or steps aside from a case, America has an even number of Supreme Court justices. Not surprisingly there have been dozens of tie votes in the Supreme Court dating back to the 1950s.
As most lawyers know, when an appellate court vote ends in a tie, the lower court decision stands. Finito!
Expanding the number of justices to 12 would balance the High Court and ensure that no big decisions would happen unless one side or the other persuades at least one fellow justice to cross over and join their voting block. Absent that, a lower circuit court decision would stand and it would be up to us lawyers to argue to trial and appellate courts what it all means. Gone would be the days when major constitutional issues are resolved by a single vote on what appears to be party lines. True, there would be circuit splits in some narrow areas of the law, but there are already a bunch of those and lawyers and courts deal with them routinely.
Although a 12-justice SCOTUS would probably require a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate (which are far from certain in the upcoming election of 2020), the concept of 12 justices actually has historical precedent. In the 1860s Congress set the number of justices at nine in order to match the number of federal circuits. There are currently 12 federal circuit courts in the United States! Moreover, a 12-justice SCOTUS should be enticing to Republicans, because all tie votes would revert to the decision of the lower circuit court and Republicans currently have a voting advantage in seven of the 12 federal circuit courts. The Senate and Electoral College are already structured in ways to almost always give Republicans the Senate, the presidency, or both – thereby ensuring a long-term advantage in the federal circuits. For their part, Democrats should embrace a 12-person SCOTUS, because, for them, it would be a vast improvement over what will probably soon be a 6-3 conservative majority.
Legal practitioners and Americans should all demand a 12-person, balanced SCOTUS because it would give us some things we haven’t had in decades — stability, objective fairness and a far less politicized tribunal at the very top of our legal system.
Some might grumble that no one wins with a tie.
That’s absolutely true and exactly the point.