The whole thing started at a town hall in Philadelphia last month with Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. When a member of the audience asked him if he would be willing to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court if elected in 2020, Buttigieg didn’t shy away from what has been, since 1937, largely an untouchable subject in American politics. “I don’t think we should be laughing at it,” he said as the audience tittered in acknowledgment of the thorny nature of the question. “In some ways, it’s no more a shattering of norms than what’s already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today.”
…But some progressive legal groups hope that a discussion about court-packing and the court’s effect on progressive reform could achieve what they have failed to accomplish for years: elevate the Supreme Court as an issue that drives Democrats to the polls and exerts pressure on Democratic presidents and senators to prioritize judicial nominations. “The thing that’s really important about the current moment is that there is this growing attention and recognition that courts matter,” says Alicia Bannon, who advocates for reforms to state court systems at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. “We can’t just win our fights at the ballot box. We can’t just pass good legislation. We also need to have good judges.”
Pack the Courts isn’t alone on its mission. Belkin has joined a growing chorus of progressive activists, Democratic operatives, and academics in calling for reforming the Supreme Court. Earlier this month, former attorney general Eric Holder said that if Democrats regain power in 2020, they should consider expanding the court to counter the effects of the blocked Garland nomination. A new crop of progressive groups support the idea, including Demand Justice, which was started last May by veterans of Capitol Hill and the Obama White House to try to get progressive voters to care about the judiciary, and the grassroots group Indivisible. These groups, and figures like Holder, have successfully pushed the 2020 candidates to take on a topic that was off limits because of the political lessons learned more than 80 years ago.