Over the last few days, both the Washington Post and prominent constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe have joined the growing chorus of voices, including Republican as well as Democratic judges, making clear that eight justices are NOT enough for the nine-member Supreme Court, and that the continuing vacancy caused by Senate Republicans’ unprecedented refusal to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for the vacant Court seat is unconscionable. As the Post put it, the continued vacancy has required the Court to “punt, duck, dodge and weave around contentious issues,” creating “dysfunction.” These problems are documented in more detail in the recent report by PFAW Foundation and the Constitutional Accountability Center, “Material Harm to our System of Justice: the Consequences of an Eight-Member Supreme Court.”
As the report explains, the continuing vacancy has already produced several 4-4 splits on the Court, leaving the contested lower court decision in place but setting no national precedent. In one situation, the result was that the Court could not resolve conflicting interpretations of federal law on loan discrimination in different lower courts, causing confusion and different rules for different people around the country. Specifically, as a result of this Supreme Court 4-4 split, people in some states can be required to get their spouse to co-sign a bank loan, while in other states, some right next door, that requirement is illegal.
In addition to several 4-4 splits, the continued vacancy has caused the eight-member Court to effectively punt several important cases for later review by a full Court, again leaving uncertainty and confusion as a result. For example, in the Zubik case concerning whether religious employers can effectively deny to their employees contraceptive coverage required by the ACA because of religious objections, the Court vacated conflicting lower court decisions and suggested that the government and the employers try to find a compromise and then go back to the lower courts, and the Supreme Court, if necessary. The continued litigation by some religious employers makes clear that future resolution by a nine-member Court will be necessary. But in the meantime, uncertainty about these important rights remains. As the report explains, the continued vacancy also appears to have decreased the number of important cases the Court has agreed to review next term starting in October, and makes it difficult for the Court to issue important temporary stay decisions in divisive cases where decisions must be made quickly, as in cases seeking temporary halts of executions or new election rules.
As a result, both Republican and Democratic-appointed judges and justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, and the late Justice Scalia himself, have explained that having a full complement of nine members is important for a fully-functioning Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed last week, commenting publicly that “eight is not a good number” for the Court.
And as the Post also explained, the Senate Republican leaders that are responsible for this problem “are doing more than ever to discredit themselves,” claiming that their blockade is about the non-existent “principle” that a vacancy that arises in an election year should be filled by the next president, contrary to history and the Constitution, while at the same time claiming that Republicans could find no “worse nominee” than Judge Garland. This is despite the fact that these very same Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have agreed that Judge Garland is “well-qualified.” As the Post concludes, this admission should “end the discussion”: Judge Garland should receive a hearing and should be confirmed. But if the Senate Republican blockade continues, the eight-member Court will only cause further harm to our system of justice.