Two weeks ago, President Joe Biden’s blue-ribbon commission on Supreme Court reform released a slew of “discussion materials” that, to the surprise of no one, provided little indication that it will recommend any reforms of substance. It appears that the people who are actually affected by the work of the Court’s 6-3 conservative supermajority find this possibility, to say the least, unsatisfactory.
In public comments filed last Friday, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—one of the largest labor unions in North America—formally announced its support for Supreme Court expansion, warning this collection of law professors and elite appellate litigators that the time for earnest hand-wringing about the institution’s “legitimacy” is over. “We believe it is long past time to expand the size of the Court,” the SEIU writes. “You have an opportunity to lend your credibility to serious suggestions that can lead to real change. Please do not waste it.”
The comments, as you’d expect, focus heavily on the Court’s recent spate of alarmingly anti-labor decisions, which is propped up by a decades-long campaign of conservative activism and cheered on from the inside by unabashed unions despiser Justice Samuel Alito. But the organization also situates this trend within the broader context of a Court that consistently favors wealthy corporate interests and Republican-aligned groups: By excluding working and poor people from the political process, they argue, the conservative justices’ zealous crusade to hollow out the right to vote is quietly fueling the rise of anti-democratic sentiment across the country. “The anti-voter and anti-worker campaigns serve many of the same purposes and are almost certainly funded by many of the same extraordinarily wealthy individuals and corporations,” the SEIU writes. “SEIU members have a strong interest in ensuring that the Supreme Court is reformed so that it provides justice for all, not just the privileged few.”
The letter also takes issue with the commission’s tentative enthusiasm for instituting term limits for Supreme Court justices—an idea that both sounds nice and would do nothing about the immediate threats this 6-3 conservative supermajority poses to the well-being of working people. The risks of devoting valuable time and scarce political capital to enacting a constitutionally-suspect “reform” on which the conservatives who control the Court might one day be asked to rule, the SEIU concludes, “unfortunately puts them in the category of apparent reforms that may achieve nothing.”
This commission’s composition was always a sign about where its members would ultimately come down on the hard question of Court reform: a group of well-heeled lawyers who have spent their careers within a decorous legal system that treats the the justices as noble philosopher-monarchs and the institution itself as fundamentally above reproach. This unearned sense of reverence has the effect of papering over the real-world harm that Court decisions cause outside of its four walls, which is, of course, the entire reason the conservative legal movement decided to focus its resources on controlling the federal bench in the first place.
The SEIU’s decision here is part of a trend of prominent public voices who are willing to identify the Court’s abysmal failures as abysmal failures, not as the inevitable byproducts of an apolitical legal process. These voices are unlikely to prompt the Biden commission to suddenly see the error of its ways and offer a full-throated endorsement of the Judiciary Act of 2021. But a profession that remains fully invested in the Court’s legitimacy was never going to lead the charge on meaningful Court reform. If voters demand action from their lawmakers loudly enough, the feelings of a privileged handful of lawyers won’t matter for much longer.