This week’s U.S. Supreme Court rocket docket hearing on Texas’s abortion ban demonstrated that the court might not be ready to turn citizens into vigilantes when it comes to enforcing their political wishes. That was an argument worthy of scaring Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who seemed to take to heart the amicus brief from the Firearms Policy Coalition, which argued that “it takes little in the way of creative copying for States hostile to the Second Amendment—New York, California, New Jersey, Hawaii, etc.—to declare that the ownership or sale of a handgun is illegal … and set up a bounty system with the same unbalanced procedures and penalties adopted by Texas in this case.”
Speaking of guns, the court also heard a challenge to New York state’s 108-year-old concealed handgun permit law, which requires that applicants show “proper cause” before getting an unrestricted license to carry. It’s looking like that law will go down, or at least be narrowed. Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to sum up much of the conservative majority’s view when he asked during oral arguments: “You don’t have to say, when you’re looking for a permit to speak on a street corner or whatever, that your speech is particularly important. So why do you have to show in this case, convince somebody, that you’re entitled to exercise your Second Amendment right?”
National polling continues to reflect support for sensible gun regulations, and abortion access and - overwhelmingly rejects Texas-style bans. Large majorities, too. Yet we’ve got a Supreme Court majority on the far-right fringe of mainstream America. There’s increasing momentum to change that, though.
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—one of North America’s largest labor unions—announced its support for expanding the court in comments to the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States, urging that panel to restore the court’s legitimacy. Writing for the group, International President Mary Kay Henry represents the “union of approximately two million working women and men.” That’s two million workers who “stand in the unique position of being the targets of a long-running, coordinated, and well-funded effort to strip them of their organizing and other rights via federal-court litigation.” What’s more, Henry writes, “many SEIU members, as BIPOC citizens, are also targets of an additional campaign to strip them of their voting rights. That anti-voter campaign, like the anti-worker effort, has found success with this Supreme Court.”
“We firmly believe that this democracy rests on a razor’s edge and came, within the last 12 months, very close to falling apart,” Henry tells the commission, in large part because the “interests of poor and working people have been largely shut out from government and the law, feeding the rise of anti-democratic forces to which people throughout history have turned in desperation.” Henry pleads with the commission to “not forget where we have been in the last twelve months” and to “not get lost in all the academic talk and mundaneness of Zoom meeting rooms.”
Henry makes a powerful argument for substantive reform, for the commission to not do the thing most presidential commissions do: “Please be wary of meaningless gestures at reform and of resistance to change that is camouflaged as seemingly reasonable restraint, and please interrogate what may be even your own inherent biases against change.” Such gestures include a reform the commission seems to be considering, instituting term limits, which is nibbling around the edges of a 6-3 majority that is intent on rolling back decades of progress. Spending valuable time and political capital on such a limited effort, that could ultimately be rejected by that extremist majority anyway, puts that idea “in the category of apparent reforms that may achieve nothing.”
“We believe it is long past time to expand the size of the Court,” Henry writes on behalf of the SEIU. “You have an opportunity to lend your credibility to serious suggestions that can lead to real change. Please do not waste it.”
As of now, wasting this opportunity appears that’s what the commission is inclined to do, scheduled to finish its work with a final report on December 15. The commission should recognize within itself what Henry warns it against, that its members are “blessed by power, prestige, and expensive educations, […] very good at cloaking their arguments in what sound like high-minded principles.”
Meanwhile, the effort to build a coalition in Congress to do the job the commission doesn’t seem to want to take on continues and strengthens. There are now 40 House members cosponsoring the Judiciary Act of 2021 to expand the court.