By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
October 16, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal
Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has sparked a firestorm of outrage and recrimination on the left. Some attacks seem aimed at intimidating the justices into supporting progressive causes. “The Court must now prove—through its work—that it is worthy of the nation’s trust,” Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, tweeted Oct. 6.
Yet the attacks go beyond ideology. Detractors of Justice Kavanaugh and President Trump are denouncing the Constitution itself and the core elements of America’s governmental structure:
• The Electoral College. Mr. Trump’s opponents claim he is an illegitimate president because Hillary Clinton “won the popular vote.” One commentator even asked “what kind of nation allows the loser of a national election to become president.” The complaint that the Electoral College is undemocratic is nothing new. The Framers designed it that way. They created a republican form of government, not a pure democracy, and adopted various antimajoritarian measures to keep the “demos” in check.
The Electoral College could be eliminated by amending the Constitution. But proposing an amendment requires two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress, and the legislatures of three-fourths, or 38, of the states would have to ratify it.
• The Senate. The complaint here is that the 50 senators who voted in Justice Kavanaugh’s favor “represent” fewer people than the 48 who voted against him. But senators represent states, not people.
Equal Senate representation for the states was a key part of the Connecticut Compromise, along with House seats apportioned by population. The compromise persuaded large and small states alike to accept the new Constitution. It was so fundamental that Article V of the Constitution—which spells out the amendment procedure—provides that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” That means an amendment changing the structure of the Senate would require ratification by all 50 states.
• Judicial independence. Commentators who disapprove of the Supreme Court’s composition have urged, as one law professor put it, “shrinking the power of the courts to overrun our citizens’ democratic decisions.” Some suggest limiting and staggering the justices’ terms so that a vacancy would come up every other year, ensuring that the court follows the election returns. That could be achieved via constitutional amendment, but it would go against the Framers’ wisdom. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 78, life tenure for judges is “the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws.”
Some of Justice Kavanaugh’s detractors have demanded that if Democrats take the House next month, they open an investigation into the sex-crime allegations Senate Democrats failed to substantiate. But although Congress has wide oversight powers with respect to the executive branch, it has no such oversight authority over the judiciary. The only way the House can legitimately investigate a sitting judge is in an impeachment proceeding.
And Justice Kavanaugh cannot be impeached for conduct before his promotion to the Supreme Court. Article III provides that judges “hold their Offices during good Behavior,” so that a judge can be removed only for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” committed during his term in office.
That puts inquiry into allegations about Justice Kavanaugh’s conduct as a teenager and young adult well outside Congress’s investigative authority, along with any claims that he misled the Judiciary Committee. Such claims could be reviewed only as part of a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors based on a referral from the Senate, the only body that may decide whether his testimony contained “material” misrepresentations. For the House to inquire into this matter would impermissibly encroach on the Senate’s advice-and-consent power.
Michael Barone has observed that “all procedural arguments are insincere.” Those who now complain about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College and the Senate were quite content when their party seemed to have a lock on the former and held a large majority in the latter. And it is the Supreme Court’s countermajoritarian character that made possible the decisions, such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, that progressives now fear are at risk of being overturned or pared back.
There’s one thing the left could do to make the Supreme Court more liberal without amending the Constitution. Some have suggested a return to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “court packing” plan, which sought to expand the court to as many as 15 justices. Nothing in the Constitution prevents Congress from expanding the Supreme Court’s membership. Article III merely establishes a Supreme Court; it does not say how many justices it should have. Congress has altered the number of justices by statute several times, most recently in the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, which expanded the court from seven members to nine. But this would require a president and House and Senate majorities willing to go down this path, likely at considerable political cost. In other words, progressives would have to win elections. And if they did that, they’d be able to change the court without making it bigger.
The anger and disappointment of Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents is understandable, as would be that of his supporters if the vote had gone the other way. They are perfectly entitled to pursue political remedies, including using his appointment as a campaign issue. They also are entitled to pursue amendments to the Constitution that would make our system of government more responsive to the popular will. What they cannot do is overturn the Connecticut Compromise guaranteeing each state equal representation in the Senate, or launch unconstitutional investigations or impeachment of a sitting Supreme Court justice. The Constitution protects all of us, even Supreme Court justices.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.