RALEIGH — The state House wants Congress to reject proposals for packing the U.S. Supreme Court. The House voted 68-44 on May 6 to support a federal “Keep Nine” amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
House Joint Resolution 286 urges Congress to propose the “Keep Nine” amendment, which would declare “The Supreme Court of the United States shall be composed of nine Justices.”
Votes within the House fell largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats rejecting it. But the longest speech supporting the proposal came from a freshman Democrat, Rep. Abe Jones of Wake County.
“I looked at this strictly as a lawyer and as a person who has been in the judging business most of my professional career,” Jones said. “I don’t like losing elections. It’s not fun. I hope my side can win some elections going down the road.”
“But I think if you start down the road of we change the number of people on the Supreme Court just because we lost some elections, what’s the next one going to do, and the next one, and the next one?” he added. “We’ll go to 11. We’ll go to 13. We’ll go to 15. I mean: Give me a break.”
Much of the discussion about adding justices stems from former President Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court appointments. Political observers have suggested that Trump appointees give the high court a clear conservative majority.
Those who support adding justices want to dilute conservatives’ apparent control of court decisions.
Jones questioned the popular wisdom. “Just because some guy puts somebody on the Supreme Court, it doesn’t mean he’s always going to vote consistent with that president’s philosophy. It doesn’t mean that.”
“Those people who go on those courts, for the most part, thank goodness, are experienced jurists who take their work very, very seriously,” Jones said. “They haven’t made a pact with Donald Trump – or anybody else.”
Other Democrats spoke against the resolution.
Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, reminded colleagues that the Supreme Court’s membership has shifted from five to 10 justices over the nation’s history. “We are used to it being nine, but it hasn’t always been that way,” Quick said. “I don’t think we should be asking Congress to lock us in to something that may not be amenable for us in the future.”
Presidents appoint members of the U.S. Supreme Court, with Senate approval. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, offered colleagues a recent history lesson.
“Forgive me if this sounds partisan – it’s not my intent – but five of the last seven justices [who] have been appointed to the Supreme Court have been appointed by a president who didn’t win the popular vote.”
Rep. Vernetta Alston, D-Durham, noted the lack of detailed instructions about the Supreme Court’s makeup in the U.S. Constitution.
“I interpret that silence … to be intentional, for Congress to have the flexibility to determine the size and scope of our federal judiciary, inclusive of our Supreme Court,” she said. “The amendment that this resolution would support, I think, violates the intent of our founders and is unnecessary.”
Rep. David Rogers, R-Rutherford, reminded colleagues that legislative Democrats and their allies offered a nearly opposite argument in 2016. At that time, Democrats objected to the idea of Republican lawmakers adding two new seats to the state Supreme Court.
“One of the things that caused the most screaming around here and banging on windows and doors and such was don’t pack the court … the North Carolina Supreme Court,” Rogers said. “From the arguments from your side today, am I fair in understanding that your side does not have a problem with raising the number of a Supreme Court when a legislative body decides that’s a good thing to do?”
Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, rejected court-packing proposals from either major party.
“There’s going to be a day [when] the Republicans will be back in power,” he said. “We could turn around and pack it in our direction at that point. Then when the Democrats take it back, they could repack it in theirs. Eventually, we could end up with a couple hundred members.”
The nation’s highest court has had nine members for 150 years. But Democrats on Capitol Hill have proposed expanding the court to 13 members, Meanwhile, President Biden has appointed a commission to study Supreme Court issues, including the prospect of adding justices.
H.J.R. 286 now heads to the state Senate. If approved there, the resolution could head to each member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, the presiding officers in the U.S. House and Senate, and leaders of legislatures in the other 49 American states.