The messages were delivered publicly and privately by President Biden’s allies: He’s not going after the Supreme Court hard enough.
In the two years since Mr. Biden took office, the court’s conservative majority has undermined or struck down abortion rights, affirmative action, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation. It blocked the president’s agenda on immigration, student loans, vaccine mandates and climate change.
The recent rulings are sweeping conservative victories that could help Democrats stoke anger among women, young voters, environmental activists, blacks and members of the LGBTQ community as the president looks toward the 2024 elections.
But despite mounting pressure, Mr. Biden has resisted a full-throated attack on the Supreme Court itself or the individual justices. He denounced the court’s individual decisions, but said he did not want to politicize the third branch of American democracy and risk undermining its authority forever.
The president’s approach fails to do what progressive activists and leading members of his own party have been urging: Go beyond just disagreeing with the court’s decisions and attack it as an institution. Elect its six conservative justices as corrupt MAGA Republicans who are in the pocket of special interests. To question the very legitimacy of the conservative court.
“He’s an institutionalist at heart,” said Brian Fallon, a Democratic activist who has waged a yearslong campaign to overhaul the Supreme Court. “Politicians of his vintage, I think, continue to have respect for the court as an institution even though this current court, in its current composition, does not deserve that respect. But old habits die hard.”
A former senator who spent years presiding over Supreme Court nominations as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Biden believes in the court’s potential as a force for good, according to people close to him. In his 2007 memoir, he speaks with respect of the court, quoting James Madison when recounting the contentious battles he led over Republican candidates in the 1980s and 1990s. He called the recent decisions of the Supreme Court “extreme” and “scandalous”, but in an interview on MSNBCthe president would not call the court “anti-democratic”.
“Its value system is different,” Mr. Biden said, focusing on the court’s rejection of abortion rights. “And its respect for institutions is different.”
Examinations of the past two years of Supreme Court decisions have revealed what longtime observers say is a clear shift to the right, making it by one measure the most conservative court in nearly a decade. But despite several significant victories for the right last month, the court’s last term also featured some liberal successes on the Voting Rights Act, immigration, the role of state legislatures in elections and Native American rights.
Still, Mr. Biden’s allies are arguing for a strong denunciation of a court they see as wildly out of step with the country.
Some suggested the president should focus on reports of cozy relationships between the conservative justices and wealthy donors to call the court corrupt. Others pushed for him to accept term limits for the judges. Adam Green, the chairman of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, urged the White House and lawmakers to have the president accuse the court of a “legislative crisis.”
“We would like to crack down on anyone using this corruption/legitimacy messaging,” Mr. Green wrote to lawmakers a few weeks ago. “Do you think your office can insert this line into public statements as decisions come down?”
Mr. Green has shared with Democratic politicians private polling data that suggests there is support among the public to attack the court as an institution. In their surveys, 62 percent said the court “increasingly faces a crisis of legitimacy.” Only 26 percent disagreed with that statement. The split was similar among independent voters.
“Criticizing the institution, if done at a high crescendo, hopefully gets the court to be on their best behavior in the future,” Mr Green said.
The idea is catching on with some of the president’s top allies.
“The fanatical MAGA right has captured the Supreme Court and achieved dangerous, regressive policies,” says Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the chamber’s top Democrat. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island and a member of the Judiciary Committee, is unsparing in calling the judicial body a “trapped court” that is “fussing without recourse.”
Representative Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat and former House Speaker, is calling out Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito by name, calling their actions “disgraceful” and saying the “Republican-controlled court” has achieved a “dark, extreme vision” for the country. . She endorsed the idea of limiting the terms of Supreme Court justices.
There is some historical precedent for a president campaigning against the Supreme Court and its decisions.
Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 against the court’s liberal criminal justice decisions under Chief Justice Earl Warren. Theodore Roosevelt repeatedly condemned the court’s business rulings during his 1912 campaign. Franklin Roosevelt fought a losing battle to expand the size of the court after justices began dismantling parts of his economic agenda.
“When Supreme Courts are perceived as extreme or ideological, it can lead to political realignment, and it can become a defining issue in campaigns,” said Michael Waldman, the president and chief executive of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Justice. of Law. “That hasn’t happened yet. But all the ingredients are there.”
During Mr. Biden’s 2020 campaign, many progressives urged him to consider dramatic reforms to the Supreme Court to counter the influence of its conservative members, including expanding the number of justices.
Unwilling to dismiss the concerns of progressives, Mr. Biden has agreed to set up a commission to study the idea if he is elected. The group he created once in office produced a report that revealed deep divisions over the idea of increasing the number of judges to change the balance of power, a move known as “packing the court.” But the group has not taken a position on that idea or other possible actions, such as deadlines.
Since the panel delivered its report in late 2021, the president has made few public comments about it.
Mr. Waldman, who was a member of the president’s study committee, said progressives had largely given up on the idea of convincing Mr. Biden to support expansion of the court because it was clear he opposed the idea. But Mr. Waldman said the president could still be more aggressive in the language he uses.
“There’s a long history of these issues being part of the presidential dialogue and debate, and it would be a missed opportunity, I think, if President Biden didn’t take advantage of that,” he said.
But Mr. Biden, it seems, doesn’t want to go there — to the frustration of some members of his own party.
“His heart is not in it,” said Jeff Shesol, former President Bill Clinton’s speechwriter and author of “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court.”
“He clearly resents the decisions this court is reaching,” Mr Shesol said. “He was just never that guy. As crazy as he is about these decisions, he intends to walk away from it.”
White House officials say Mr. Biden has demonstrated his willingness to criticize the court’s rulings on abortion, affirmative action and other violations of longstanding legal precedents. And they said he is aggressively appointing a diverse array of judges to the federal bench, including the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.
Officials vowed that would continue as Mr. Biden seeks a second term.
“President Biden is bringing together a diverse coalition behind protecting the fundamental rights of the American people,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said. “He makes a strong case, with which majorities of the country and congressional Democrats agree, against what he calls ‘extreme’ and ‘outrageous’ behavior by a court that increasingly diminishes institutions by legislating from the bench.”
There have been some recent moments when the president has seemed to flirt with a more aggressive stance toward the court.
After the six conservative justices voted to strike down the use of affirmative action by colleges and universities last month, a reporter wanted to know if Mr. Biden thought the Supreme Court had gone rogue.
“This,” said the president, after thinking for a moment, “is not a normal court.”
It looked like it could be the start of just what some of the president’s supporters have been calling for. In conversations with White House officials, Mr. Green was told that the president would not question the court’s legitimacy, but he remained hopeful that even saying the court was not “normal” was a step in the right direction.
“That will go down in the history books,” Mr. Green said of the president’s comment.
But a few hours later, Mr. Biden made it very clear what he meant — and what he didn’t. He didn’t want to politicize the court too much, he told Nicolle Wallace during the MSNBC interview. He has only focused on decisions by the justices that he disagrees with, such as their sweeping rejection of abortion rights.
“What I meant by that is that it’s done more to unravel basic rights and basic decisions than any court in recent history,” Mr. Biden said. “And that’s what I meant by ‘not normal’.”