WASHINGTON — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive independent who is a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said at a liberal gathering Monday that he opposes adding seats to the Supreme Court.
“My worry is that the next time Republicans are in power, they will do the same thing,” he said in response to a question at the We the People Summit, which was organized by the Service Employees International Union, the Sierra Club and other liberal groups. “I don’t think it’s the ultimate solution.”
Instead, Sanders said he was open to the idea of rotating appeals court judges onto the Supreme Court and “bringing in new blood.” Some law professors have suggested making every judge on the federal appeals courts an associate justice of the Supreme Court, with the nine judges serving on the nation’s top panel changing every two weeks. The goal would be to cool down the political temperature of fights over the courts and require lawyers before the court to prepare broader arguments that could appeal to judges across the ideological spectrum.
Sanders’ position separates him from some other contenders for the Democratic nod, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas), all of whom said they were open to adding seats to the court. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the only Democratic candidate to provide a more specific plan: increasing the size of the court to 15 members but requiring five of those justices to have the unanimous support of the first 10.
“Anything that would make a Supreme Court vacancy less of an apocalyptic ideological struggle would be an improvement,” Buttigieg told The Intercept.
Advocates pushing to change the court’s structure were pleased with Sanders’ stance.
“As Sanders’ proposal shows, there is a growing consensus in the Democratic Party now that the Supreme Court must be reformed,” said Brian Fallon, the executive director of the liberal judicial group Demand Justice. “The only remaining debate is how to best reform it. No one is any longer defending the status quo of just letting the Roberts Court block progressive priorities for the next 30 years. Progressive activists have awakened to the danger posed by Trump’s packing of the courts, and Democratic candidates for president now see they need a plan to respond to this crisis.”
Other Democratic candidates who said they oppose adding seats to the court — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Rep. John Delaney (Md.) are relative centrists compared with Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism.
Sanders, who has served in Congress for more than 25 years, is occasionally cautious on procedural issues. He has been skeptical of eliminating the Senate’s filibuster rule. But his stance reflects his belief that significant policy changes can come only from a mass movement.
“Real change is never going to come from Capitol Hill. It will come from a grassroots political movement,” he said at the summit. “When millions of people stand up and fight back, we will not be denied.”