Liberal activists made an overhaul of the federal judiciary, including court-packing, part of the 2020 platform adopted this week at the Democratic National Convention.
The platform’s call for “structural court reforms” is short on specifics, but advocacy groups have begun recruiting liberal judicial candidates for a court-packing agenda in a potential Biden administration next year.
Every president appoints federal judges to fill vacancies, but liberal activists have lobbied for years to expand the number of federal judges when Democrats take the White House, enabling them to tilt the federal bench markedly to the left.
In 2016, the Democratic Party platform made a fleeting reference to the federal judiciary. It said Democrats would install judges defending “liberty and equality for all,” particularly on the issues of abortion and billionaires’ purported influence over elections.
Buckling under pressure from liberal activists, who are furious about President Trump’s 200-plus judicial appointments, Democratic Party officials incorporated the court-packing agenda.
“Since 1990, the United States has grown by one-third, the number of cases in federal district courts has increased by 38 percent, federal circuit court filings have risen by 40 percent, and federal cases involving a felony defendant are up 60 percent, but we have not expanded the federal judiciary to reflect this reality in nearly 30 years,” reads the 2020 platform document. “Democrats will commit to creating new federal district and circuit judgeships consistent with recommendations from the Judicial Conference.”
Liberal activists celebrated the Democrats’ commitment to creating more judgeships as the party establishment finally accepted calls for court-packing.
Brian Fallon, executive director of liberal judicial advocacy group Demand Justice, labeled the move a “historic call” and took credit on Twitter for helping to push Democrats to the left on efforts to pack the federal judiciary.
Mr. Fallon, who was a top aide to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, called for expanding the Supreme Court and other federal courts and led attacks on Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the high court in 2018.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee, is a close ally of Mr. Fallon and has rallied with him in opposition to Mr. Trump’s judicial picks.
To ensure that the liberal court-packing agenda does not disappear after the convention and coming elections, the liberal activists at Alliance for Justice have developed a “Building the Bench” initiative focused on creating a leftist farm system of judges for a Democratic president to use.
“It is painfully obvious that Republicans weaponize the courts to do their dirty work in an attempt to dismantle health care protections, civil rights and more,” Nan Aron, Alliance for Justice founder, said in a statement. “With any future legislation that strengthens access to healthcare or civil rights, Republicans will again turn to this dirty trick, so any progressive agenda must prioritize the judiciary to safeguard this progress. Our Building the Bench initiative is identifying and assisting in the confirmation of judges under the next administration who will serve the cause of justice for all people, not just the wealthy and powerful.”
The group’s efforts are being guided by a council led by lawyers from law schools such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford, from large law firms such as Arnold & Porter, and from the activist community including the Transformative Justice Coalition.
The Building the Bench initiative is “prioritizing demographic diversity” and promises to “help prospective judicial nominees navigate their way through the process.”
While presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden has pledged to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court whenever a seat opens, liberal activists also want Mr. Biden to remake the demographics of the federal bench.
Alliance for Justice’s activists are concerned that the courts will not always be front-and-center during the party’s national convention this week. The convention’s largely virtual format makes it more difficult for liberal activists to pressure Democratic Party leaders, so the group is organizing its grassroots activists on social media around #CourtsMatter to show that liberals care about the issue.
Courts have recently mattered more to conservative voters. President Trump leveraged the politics of the federal judiciary and a Supreme Court vacancy to win over skeptical conservatives in 2016.
Mike Davis, president of the conservative Article III Project that supports Mr. Trump’s judicial picks, said he is considering buying ads that point out the Democratic Party Platform. The left’s “radical court-packing scheme” would motivate Mr. Trump’s base for the November election, he said.
“Republicans need to see, and maybe the Democratic platform will do it, that there is a clear threat to a conservative majority on the [Supreme] Court,” Mr. Davis said. “Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice-presidential pick, has endorsed a radical scheme to add at least two more justices to the nine on the Supreme Court, something that even [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] failed to accomplish and now the Biden-Harris ticket is explicitly endorsing court-packing in their platform.”
With no current Supreme Court vacancy, pro-Trump conservatives have gossiped that one of the justices appointed by a Republican president may retire soon in hopes that such fears will galvanize conservatives. Fears of a liberal court-packing scheme, however, may prove to be a more potent argument for conservatives this year.