Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden drew immediate fire from both the right and the left Thursday after he said that, if elected president, he would set up a blue-ribbon commission on overhauling the court system.
After weeks of dodging questions about Democrats’ plan to pack the courts, Mr. Biden said he would impanel a bipartisan group to study it, falling back on the standard government practice of deferring to an outside panel to temporarily sideline issues deemed too hot to handle.
“It’s getting out of whack, the way in which it’s being handled and it’s not about court packing,” Mr. Biden told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in a clip released Thursday. “There’s a number of other things that our constitutional scholars have debated and I’ve looked to see what recommendations that commission might make.”
Asked whether he would study the issue of packing the court, or adding seats to the Supreme Court, he said there are several alternatives that go “well beyond packing.”
“The last thing we need to do is turn the Supreme Court into just a political football, whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want,” he said. “Presidents come and go. Supreme Court justices stay for generations.”
Mr. Biden has repeatedly declined to say whether he would support an effort pushed by liberals to add seats to the Supreme Court if Republicans confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett before the election.
Democrats would have the power to alter the Supreme Court if the party controls Washington next year.
Mr. Biden has allowed that he’s “not a fan” of court-packing and suggested he could make his position known in the coming days depending on how Judge Barrett’s confirmation goes.
Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, said establishing a committee is, at the very least, a better option than packing the court.
“He’s just trying to buy time,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I mean, that’s what politicians do when they don’t want to commit to something one way or the other: They appoint a committee.”
Liberal groups said Mr. Biden at least appears open to evolving on the issue but that a commission would likely be a dead-end for major changes.
“We don’t need to be promised a nice report about reform delivered to the White House,” said Yvette Simpson, CEO of the group Democracy for America. “We need Vice President Biden to assure Americans that he will take bold action to ensure our courts don’t remain dominated by a right-wing fringe installed by Mitch McConnell to attack abortion rights, destroy health care reform, and dismantle our democracy.”
Brian Fallon, executive director of the group Demand Justice, said setting up a commission to report back in six months would likely end up in a “punt.”
“The Republicans’ decision to plow forward with Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination in the midst of a national election requires a more urgent response than a study that will take 180 days to complete,” Mr. Fallon said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Judge Barrett’s nomination on Thursday despite a Democratic boycott.
Liberals are demanding that Congress move to add seats to the Supreme Court as payback for Republicans’ “stealing” a seat so close to the election.
Conservatives said Mr. Biden’s statement means he likely wants to pack the court, which polling has shown is not a popular position among the overall electorate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it is anyone’s guess as to where the former vice president actually stands.
“I had no idea what he was trying to say. I don’t know what this commission would do,” Mr. Graham said outside Thursday’s hearing. “But here’s what I can tell you: If you’re a Democrat, the people who want to pack the court will come after you if you say no.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of Mr. Biden’s primary rivals, immediately pivoted to attacking Republicans for their Supreme Court push when asked about the idea.
“All options are on the table, and a commission can certainly look at everything,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer reiterated his position that everything is on the table if Democrats control the House, Senate and White House next year.
“First job, get the majority,” the New York Democrat said when asked about Mr. Biden’s idea.