Embracing Supreme Court Expansion Carries No Political Cost, Study Says

Expanding the Supreme Court, an increasingly popular reform among some progressive activists, is not politically costly for Democrats, according to an academic survey commissioned by a group that supports the idea.

The study documented reactions to the idea among 2,400 Democrats, Republicans and independents from the political swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was conducted by political scientist Aaron Belkin from San Francisco State University and James Druckman of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research. Druckman, a public opinion expert, designed the study, while the funding came from Take Back the Court, a progressive judicial reform group that Belkin runs.

The survey asked participants to react to two different Democrat-Republican matchups. The first was a “status quo” group pitting a standard Democratic candidate who wants to expand health care access, repeal President Donald Trump’s tax cuts, regulate guns and fight climate change against a Republican candidate who holds inverse positions but also wants to reshape the judiciary. 

In a second matchup, survey participants evaluated a “court expansion” matchup between a hypothetical Republican candidate and a hypothetical Democratic candidate. In that scenario, the Democrat would propose expanding the court to make it “more representative of America, bring greater balance to the court, and prevent the domination of the Supreme Court by a single political party,” according to the study. The Republican candidate would call the idea “a threat to the independence of the judiciary and the rights of all Americans by radical liberals trying to change the rules so a few cities in New York and California can impose their will on the rest of us.”

The reactions of the survey participants were not positive, but they weren’t really negative in a way that was statistically significant, either. 

Belkin and Druckman found that Democratic respondents felt only 0.5% cooler toward the Democratic and Republican candidates after exposure to the second scenario compared to the first. Those participants are 0.8% less likely to vote for a Democrat and 2% less likely to vote altogether. Republican respondents felt 5% warmer toward Republican candidates as a result of exposure to the second scenario, but it did not affect their voting behavior in a statistically significant way.

Independent voters who participated in the survey felt 0.6% cooler toward Democrats and 3.8% cooler toward Republicans as a result of the second scenario. These independents are 8.1% more likely to vote for a Democrat  and 6.5% less likely to vote altogether.

“There is no statistically significant effect, in other words, of exposure to a court expansion message on likelihood of voting, vote choice, or willingness to accept a lower personal financial reward so as to withhold economic support from the opposing party,” Belkin and Druckman concluded in the study.

For an ordinary political cause, not being an active drag on a candidate is not exactly a selling point. 

But Take Back the Court knows that it is in the early stages of mainstreaming an idea that was relegated to the political fringes as recently as three years ago. Conducting academically sound research showing that Supreme Court expansion is not the kind of radioactive cause that some Democrats are warning against is a victory itself.

“Judicial reform will be necessary to take our democracy back, and our data show that there is no reason for leaders to shy away from saying what needs to be said,” Belkin said in a statement to HuffPost. “This is the time to address the threats we face explicitly and head on, and not bury our heads in the sand.”

Take Back the Court is part of a budding contingent of liberal groups, including Demand Justice, that want Democratic voters to value control of the judiciary as much as Republican voters. Many conservatives who are otherwise averse to Trump publicly called on their co-ideologues to back him for the sake of gaining control of the Supreme Court and reshaping the federal judiciary. And indeed, as a result of his presidency, conservatives enjoy a decisive majority on the court and Trump has moved faster than many of his modern predecessors to fill vacancies on the federal bench.

Take Back the Court maintains that Republicans’ decadeslong schemes to conquer the courts, which put reproductive rights and a host of other progressive priorities at risk of extinction, must be met with analogous creativity and assertiveness. Since Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was willing to hold up then-President Barack Obama’s nominee for a Supreme Court seat, the thinking is that the time for niceties has passed. Expanding the court would allow liberals to shape the Supreme Court’s direction without having to wait until conservative appointees die on the bench decades from now.

Still, Belkin’s focus on public opinion ― both moving it and leveraging it to sway lawmakers ― stems from his work as an LGBTQ rights pioneer. As a founder of the Palm Center in San Francisco, Belkin designed a public education campaign aimed at eroding support for the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gay and queer military service members from serving openly. He recounted the story of that successful repeal fight in the e-book, “How We Won: Progressive Lessons From the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”

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