Why Are Establishment Democrats So Obsessed With the Number 9?

Supreme Court at night

The United States Supreme Court building at night. (Orhan Cam / Shutterstock)

Congressional Democrats unveiled legislation on Thursday aimed at expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court. The bill, introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), and cosponsored by House Democrats Hank Johnson and Mondaire Jones, would swell the number of justices from its current nine to 13, adding four seats to the nation’s highest court. The bill arrived precisely one week after President Biden announced the formation of a commission to study adding seats to the court—and one day before that commission’s first meeting—and can, in many ways, be seen a direct response to the failure of that committee to impress anybody besides the Federalist Society.

Biden has thus far ignored the bill. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi did him one better and shot it down immediately. She indicated to reporters that she would not allow it to come to the House floor for a vote.

The cleavage between Democrats who want to do something about the conservative takeover of the courts and those who do not couldn’t be any deeper—or clearer. On one side, you have a group of people who have seen how Mitch McConnell and the Republicans have manipulated the court: stealing a seat from Barack Obama to appoint Neil Gorsuch, confirming alleged attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh, and rushing to confirm Amy Coney Barrett after the 2020 election had already started. These Democrats are sick and tired of being stomped on by Republicans willing to use raw political power to reshape the very definition of justice in this country; now that they have power, they simply want to use it to defend the people who voted for them.

But these Democrats, the ones who want to aggressively reshape the courts to counter what Republicans have already done, are constantly having to fight internal battles against other Democrats who want… well, I don’t know what they want. The Democrats who are against court reform are for nothing. They don’t have a different, more incremental, less radical plan to address long-term Republican control of the courts; they have no plan at all. They offer only acceptance of the ill-gotten Republican gains on the court. They propose simply hugging it out with Republicans (literally) and counsel only fear of what Republicans will do should Democrats take any protective action. In response to Republicans’ stealing their lunch money, the Democratic leadership’s solution is to get used to being hungry.

I’d love to critique Pelosi’s policies on Supreme Court reform, but she offers me none to critique. She promised, when Democrats were trying to take back the House in 2018, that she’d launch an investigation into the many ethical complaints about Kavanaugh, but she has done nothing to bring him to justice. Upon Barrett’s confirmation, she said, “The President’s Supreme Court manipulation threatens the very values and rights that define and distinguish our nation.” But she rejects an opportunity to counteract that manipulation out of hand, without even bothering to tell people why. The establishment wing of the Democratic Party seems to be practicing the most cynical form of politics: They want to complain about the issue, not solve the problem.

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