PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Congressman David Cicilline has signed onto a bill that would expand the size of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the first member of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to back the idea.
Cicilline on Tuesday became a cosponsor of the Judiciary Act of 2021, which would add four more justices to the court, expanding it from nine members to 13. His decision follows the leak of a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito striking down the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
“Americans’ faith in the Court is at an all-time low and we need to do all we can to restore it,” Cicilline told 12 News in a statement.
“This loss of trust didn’t happen overnight but has grown out of a increasingly partisan confirmation process that started with Mitch McConnell refusing to give Merrick Garland a hearing and a vote, extends to the clear conflict of interest posed by Ginni Thomas’s work and advocacy, and includes this leak and extremist draft opinion,” he said. (Thomas is the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas.)
Expanding the high court — or “court packing,” in the eyes of opponents — has moved from a fringe position among Democrats to one with growing mainstream support following the judiciary controversies of the Obama, Trump and Biden presidencies.
Republicans have condemned the idea, which is almost certainly going nowhere due to a lack of support in the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. The court has had nine justices since 1869, with the last major attempt to add seats made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.
The idea of adding justices has picked up steam somewhat faster in Massachusetts’ all-Democratic delegation than in Rhode Island’s.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey is Senate sponsor of a bill to add more justices, backed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Then-Congressman Joe Kennedy III highlighted the idea regularly during his unsuccessful primary challenge against Markey, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is also a supporter.
In Rhode Island, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the Supreme Court’s current conservative majority on Capitol Hill, speaking out regularly to criticize the network of groups that have helped Republicans gain control of the court.
But Whitehouse has not signed onto Markey’s bill to add more justices, suggesting that such a move would be premature. (Markey has only one cosponsor beyond Warren, Minnesota Democrat Tina Smith.)
“Democrats are very active and very passionate people — it’s kind of in our nature,” Whitehouse told 12 News in 2020 when asked about adding more justices. “And one of the things we love is quarrelsome hypotheticals to fight with each other over.”
Cicilline, a member of the Judiciary Committee, is one of five House lawmakers who have signed onto the Judiciary Act since the Roe decision leaked, giving it 55 cosponsors. He argued the bill would “help meet the increased workload of the court, and institute a bench that reflects the 13 circuits — a practical solution to increase efficiency and promote justice.”
In addition, Cicilline urged passage of the separate 21st Century Courts Act, a bill led by Whitehouse that would among provisions require the Supreme Court to adopt an ethics code; beef up the rules around recusals; and force more disclosure of gifts provided to federal judges.
Such policies “should have long ago been in place,” Cicilline argued.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook