Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote a scathing opinion article for Thursday’s Washington Post, lambasting any potential effort by Democrats to modify the U.S. Supreme Court by adding new seats or adjusting the body’s lifetime appointments, but he left out key moments of his own political history.
“Judicial independence is as fragile as it is important. The Framers of our Constitution took great pains to protect it,” the senator wrote, demanding that Democrats “leave the Supreme Court alone.” “Every single American deserves every possible guarantee that they will receive impartial justice. It would be beyond reckless for Democrats to smash this centuries-old safeguard in a fit of partisan pique.”
The piece left out any mention of McConnell’s own dramatic and unprecedented efforts to reshape not just the Supreme Court but the nation’s entire judiciary to lean more conservative. As Senate majority leader, the Republican broke precedent and refused to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, nominated by President Barack Obama in March 2016, pointing to a “principle” about Supreme Court vacancies in an election year. He broke that so-called principle last year following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18, 2020, and rushed to confirm Amy Coney Barrett at a breakneck pace.
He called that moment a “capstone” in his years-long effort under Donald Trump to confirm 220 federal judges, effectively pulling the nation’s judiciary further to the right.
“The Senate exists to defeat shortsighted proposals and protect our institutions from structural vandalism. That is our job,” McConnell wrote in the Thursday article. “The American people need their judges to do theirs: follow the law wherever it may lead, independent and unafraid.”
The Republican leader’s op-ed comes amid work by a presidential commission established by President Joe Biden in April to investigate Democratic proposals to retool the court. The bipartisan body of experts has already expressed skepticism about a major overhaul of the federal judiciary, according to draft documents, saying such a move “would be perceived by many as a partisan maneuver.”
There is more support on the panel for potential term limits, and another draft paper released by the commission last month said a proposal for 18-year appointments “warrants serious consideration.” Those stances echo recent polls that show more support for term or age limits and minority support for expanding the court’s size.
The commission will hold a fifth public meeting next week, and it is expected to release a final report on the ideas next month.
McConnell and other Republicans, now out of power, have latched on to the Democratic proposals coming from the party’s progressive flank but have regularly refused to link those frustrations to the GOP’s own politicking.
“Even as the political left tries to spin the cancellation of life tenure as a half-step back from an even crazier opening bid, term limits would still be institutional vandalism,” McConnell wrote in the Post. “If a Republican administration came anywhere near flirting with such a proposal, the outrage from liberals would have been deafening.”
There was, in fact, outrage last year during Barrett’s confirmation, but McConnell didn’t heed it.
Regardless of what the panel recommends, any change to the Supreme Court faces an improbable battle. Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities in the Senate, with several caucus members vocally saying they wouldn’t vote to expand the court or abolish the Senate filibuster rules.
The Washington Post notes the term limits idea would be even more difficult to institute, likely requiring a constitutional amendment.
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