Billy Penn: 48 Pa. elected officials say U.S. Supreme Court should be expanded with four new justices

Billy Penn: 48 Pa. elected officials say U.S. Supreme Court should be expanded with four new justices

In the wake of a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have alarmed Democrats concerned about the justices’ rightward shift, dozens of elected officials in Pennsylvania have endorsed expanding the court in an effort to restore balance. 

Eight members of Philadelphia City Council and every state Senator representing the city are among the 48 officials who signed on to advocate for the addition of four seats to the Supreme Court, which currently “represents an existential threat to the very democracy it is sworn to uphold,” according to the letter they signed, from advocacy group Demand Justice.

“This is about putting power back where it should be: in the hands of the people,” state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta told Billy Penn. 

“This is about making sure that a few radical judges aren’t able to take away protections that people have depended on for decades,” said Kenyatta, who spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention and ran for U.S. Senate last year. “And this is ultimately about fairness. I don’t think we have a system right now that is very fair.”

Following a series of partisan battles over court nominees that culminated in Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation in 2020, securing a 6-3 Republican-appointed majority, Democrats in the last Congress introduced a bill that would expand the high court from 9 to 13 justices. Three of Pennsylvania’s reps in the House — Madeleine Dean, Brendan Boyle and Summer Lee — have voiced support for the measure. A 2022 poll from Marquette Law School found that a slim majority of Americans supported the idea.

The number of justices on the Supreme Court changed six times in the first century of its existence before landing in 1869 at the present-day total of nine.

The court’s 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade and the right to an abortion, poured fuel onto the fire and led to a broader swath of Democrats rallying behind the idea.

“The courts right now are broken,” Kenyatta said. “There is a glaring need for elected officials to step up and do something about it.”

Both Kenyatta and state Sen. Nikil Saval pointed to recent rulings on the Voting Rights Act and a pending case regarding the independent state legislature theory, in addition to the abortion case, as indications that the justices are out of step with popular opinion and election results.

“The court is at odds with the health, welfare and safety of the American people,” Saval told Billy Penn.

The broad coalition of Pa. Democrats signing onto the Demand Justice letter indicates growing momentum for expanding the court — an idea that was once considered fringe but is now gaining traction across the political spectrum.

“There has been a national conversation that is growing on how the Supreme Court no longer seems to serve and, in fact, seems to be antithetical to other democratic institutions,” Saval said. “It no longer seems to operate as a check on them; it simply erodes them and challenges the functioning of our democracy.”