CEDAR RAPIDS — For 40 years, Tom Harkin represented Iowans in Congress — 10 in the U.S. House and 30 in the Senate.
During his Senate tenure, Harkin, a liberal Democrat, sat in judgment of nearly a dozen Supreme Court confirmations from 1985 to 2015.
Harkin, 80, who did not seek reelection in 2014, now spends time working on policy issues through the Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University in Des Moines.
Like some Senate Democrats today, Harkin thought then — and still does — that the court should be expanded, but not for the reasons being argued now. He said he didn’t want to “pack” the court for ideological reasons or to gain a political advantage. He just thinks there’s too much work for nine justices.
The court was established by the Constitution. However, the size and organization of the court was left to Congress and the justices. The number of justices has changed six times since President George Washington appointed the original six justices.
Congress expanded the court from seven justices to nine in 1869.
“When I was in the Senate I often wondered why we were stuck with nine justices,” Harkin said during a recent interview. “You know, the nine justices were put in place when we had less than half of the population of the United States than we have right now.”
“The country has expanded greatly,” he said. “There’s more lawsuits and more things going on in the courts. Yet we have nine, the same nine number of justices now that we had 100 years ago.”
The number of cases filed in the Supreme Court has grown exponentially over the years. In the 1950 term, the court received 1,195 new cases. In 1975, Harkin’s first year in Congress, the court received 3,940 cases, according to supremecourt.gov.
Now, nearly 8,000 new cases are filed with the court.
However, the court hears only 100 to 150 of those cases.
So sticking with nine justices “just doesn’t seem to make sense,” Harkin said.
In the wake of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the likely confirmation of President Donald Trump’s third high court nominee, many progressives are calling for expanding the court if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidency and Democrats control the Senate. Adding more liberal judges, the argument goes, would offset the influence of conservative appointments.
An argument against expansion is that would politicize the Supreme Court. Harkin said it may be too late to avoid that.
“I think the court has been politicized greatly in the last, well, I would say, the last dozen years. Maybe greatly politicized,” he said. “I don’t know that adding any more would make it any more political than it is now.”
There are other ideas that should be considered, Harkin said. Some have suggested term limits for justices, such as staggered 18-year terms for each justice, he said.
“I think these things need to be debated, and I think in the public sector,” Harkin said. “Right now, hopefully, the Supreme Court vacancy just won’t be filled until we have a new president sworn in. But I think that’s probably a foregone conclusion now that they’re going to put someone in.”
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