December 7, 2021

Biden Supreme Court study panel unanimously approves final report


A bipartisan commission tasked by the White House with exploring possible Supreme Court reforms voted unanimously Tuesday to submit the group’s final report to President Biden.

The 34-member group sounded a neutral tone across its report's nearly 300 pages, referencing “profound disagreement” over a controversial proposal to expand the number of justices, for instance, while declining to adopt a position.

Instead, the study traces the history of the court reform debate and delineates arguments for and against various proposals, occasionally noting areas of bipartisan support, as in the case of imposing term limits on the justices.  

The findings, which bear the imprimatur of some of the nation’s foremost constitutional thinkers and court watchers, are likely to shape the contours of future debates over proposals such as limiting the Supreme Court's jurisdiction and providing Congress special authority to override decisions.

But the staid and scholarly nature of the report contrasted sharply with the politically charged atmosphere hovering over a court term that could see gun rights expanded and church-state separation eroded. Just last week, the justices heard arguments over a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that directly challenges Roe v. Wade in a case that is likely to send the clearest signal yet of how far the 6-3 conservative majority court is willing to reshape American life.

Some of the commission’s more progressive members made clear Tuesday that their votes in favor of the group’s findings should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the high court’s status quo.

“In voting to submit this report to the president, I am not casting a vote of confidence in the court’s basic legitimacy,” said Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. “I no longer have that confidence.” 

Groups advocating for bolder reforms also expressed displeasure at what some derided as a “milquetoast” result when the report was first unveiled Monday evening. 

“It was clear from the moment President Joe Biden failed to ask the commission for recommendations that the group was not intended to meaningfully confront the Supreme Court legitimacy crisis,” wrote the Project On Government Oversight. “The commission worked diligently and thoughtfully, but its deliberations made painfully apparent that it would only give Biden what he asked for: a book report.”

Debate over the future of the Supreme Court raged in the waning days of the 2020 presidential election as Senate Republicans rushed to confirm then-President Trump’s third nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, ahead of the November vote.

The move infuriated Democrats, who in 2016 were denied a hearing for then-President Obama’s pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Merrick Garland, when Republicans claimed that election-year confirmations are improper — before appearing to violate that claim four years later.

Then-candidate Biden largely deflected the issue but pledged on the campaign trail to establish a commission to study various proposals. Now that he is in possession of the final report, Biden may soon find himself facing renewed questions over his administration’s plans for court reform.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday that there was no specific timeline for Biden to complete his own review of the report, and she emphasized that the report was not a set of recommendations that Biden "either accepts or denies."

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