In February of 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was at the height of his popularity and was running high with ambitious plans to implement more revolutionary New Deal programs. He had just won his first re-election by a margin that hadn’t been seen since James Monroe, and the Democratic majority in Congress was overwhelming.
FDR only had one obstacle to passing all of the progressive legislation of his dreams: the pesky conservative Supreme Court who struck down his policies at every turn.
I won’t bore you with a full history lesson about FDR and his advisors’ scheming or the legal history of the Court. Suffice to say the President devised a bill to circumvent the Constitution and add more judges to the Court. His goal was to drown out the opinions of conservative justices.
If passed, the executive branch would have the power to mold the Supreme Court’s decisions to their preference and would obliterate the separation of powers. Fortunately, the bill was not passed.
It is now February of 2020, 84 years since FDR’s clash with the Supreme Court. On Friday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor published a scathing dissent of the Court’s decision to allow the federal government to deny green cards from applicants who are considered “public charges.”
The most jarring part of the dissent was not her critiques of the constitutionality of the immigration policy (which I am not nearly as qualified to speak on as any justice on the Supreme Court). Rather, the accusations she makes about the general conduct of the Court and the influence of the Trump administration are truly chilling.
Justice Sotomayor paints a picture of a Supreme Court that is at the beck and call of Trump and his agenda. It seems as if any time the administration fears that its policies will be struck down by lower courts, it circumvents the system by claiming that it needs immediate decisions from the Supreme Court to continue governing. Once prompted, the conservative judges on the bench are all too happy to accept the case.
Sotomayor specifically cites Justice Brett Kavanaugh as eager to serve the President’s needs and give quick decisions on his policies. Yet Kavanaugh refuses to hear cases to stay executions when time is a factor for fear they won’t be able to come to “meritorious” conclusions. These justices are actually prioritizing the will of the President over the fate of people’s lives who stand to be executed.
If what Sotomayor says is true — I tend to believe her because the fate of her reputation and career rely on her being honorable — the integrity of justice coming from the highest court in the land is truly in jeopardy, if not already corrupted.
The Trump administration has made a number of shady moves and poor decisions. But this one seems to me to have the most dire long-term consequences for the future of the American government.
I am not arguing that policies proposed by President Trump are inherently wrong or unconstitutional. However, if they are actually beyond rebuke, they should be good enough to hold up in the justice system that every other administration, and all American individuals for that matter, are subject to.
The Supreme Court was designed to be above the fray in every way, with its lifetime appointments, ceremonial formality and closely held debates. Sure, each court has its own character and leanings based on the jurists serving at a given time. But it has been a universally-held truth that the crown jewel of the justice system is reserved for the most important cases. They are typically cases that cannot be resolved by lower courts and are instrumental in defining the future of the United States.
By encouraging the Court to serve its every need and subvert the system of courts below it, the administration is warping the point of the Court.
Trump’s actions are turning an esteemed institution that is supposed to check the powers and decisions of the other branches into a cheap method to avoid decisions that go against his agenda. These actions will serve to mold national policy to his will.
I would go as far as to say that the Trump administration is weaponizing the pristine reputation of the Supreme Court to justify and validate its own policies.
Following an impeachment hearing that was nothing but a sorry display of partisan theatrics from both parties, I worry for the delicate but effective system of checks and balances that the Constitution lays out. Who is going to hold the executive accountable? Who is going to rise above partisanship and make decisions about the direction of our country with integrity?
While the future is looking quite bleak, especially in light of Justice Sotomayor’s allegations, a small bit of optimism can be found in the annals of history. Because, 84 years ago, FDR was set to pass a bill that would have created a formal pathway for presidents to coerce the Court into following their will.
Roosevelt’s overwhelmingly Democratic Congress was ready to pass this bill.
However, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Charles Evans Hughes wrote a letter to Congress explaining the dangers in the bill and the holes in the President’s defense of it. Eventually, this impassioned entreaty caused the bill to fail.
The situation we find ourselves in today is much more difficult than that of 1936. Trump’s actions mirror what FDR was doing, but Trump is acting informally through his relationship with the conservative judges he appointed.
No one act of Congress can put a stop to the President’s meddling in the Supreme Court, and it seems as if the erosion of balance of powers has infected the legislative branch as well.
However, there is hope. Perhaps the impassioned words of a Supreme Court justice whose reputation has been upheld through years on the bench still has the power to hold the attention and awaken the morality of the U.S. federal government.
Alanna Margulies is a sophomore studying International Studies and History from Watchung, N.J.