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The New Composition of the Supreme Court

Elections and Politics Policy Brief #33 | By: Inijah Quadri | April 19, 2022

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Policy Summary

The Supreme Court is composed of nine justices. The newest justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, was appointed by President Biden on February 25, 2022. This brief discusses how the composition of the Supreme Court has changed over time, and what the implications of its new makeup are for the future of our democracy.

Policy Analysis

The United States Supreme Court is in the midst of a historic transformation. Justices Anthony Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy, have either retired or passed away in the past few years, opening up seats on the high court for the first time in a while. This has led to significant changes in the composition of the court and has dramatically shifted its ideological landscape. These changes are having significant impact on the way the court handles cases.

There are now more conservative justices than liberal. Anthony Scalia’s death left the court with a four to four split between conservatives and liberals. The addition of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and

Ketanji Brown Jackson will leave the court with at least a 5 to 4 conservative/liberal split and a possible 6-3 split depending on what Justice Roberts does; he usually votes conservative.

Additionally, this ideological shift has been fueled by a focus on partisan politics as a driving force in the nominating process. The politicization of the nomination process started in 2016 when Republican Senator Mitch McConnell withheld having the Senate vote on President Obama’s pick of Merrick Garland to be a Supreme Court judge.

The Supreme Court often is no longer seen as an impartial arbiter of the law, but instead as another tool for advancing a political agenda. This change in how the court is perceived has had a negative impact on its legitimacy and authority.

The Current Justices

Two current justices of the Supreme Court – Sonia SotomayorElena Kagan – were appointed by former President Barack Obama and are considered  liberal-leaning justices. They have often been in disagreement with the conservative justices – John RobertsClarence ThomasSamuel Alito – appointed by former President George W. Bush, and in agreement with Stephen Breyer (who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton).

With the recent appointments of Justices Neil GorsuchBrett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett by President Donald Trump, the ideological balance on the court has shifted to the right, which is likely to result in more conservative decisions.

 


Ketanji Brown Jackson's qualifications compared to sitting Supreme Court justices.

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The New Justices

As we just mentioned, there were the recent appointments of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett by President Donald Trump in 2017, 2018, and 2020 respectively.

Another new justice is Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson’s appointment will take the position of Stephen Breyer, when he retires in June. Jackson, who is African-American, and the first black woman to be appointed to the supreme court, brings much-needed  court room experience to the bench. Jackson is a graduate of Harvard Law School. During her time on the bench, Jackson gained a reputation for being tough on crime but also fair and compassionate. She has also been active in promoting diversity and opportunity in her community.

The Political Landscape

The political landscape of the Supreme Court refers to the ideological make-up of the court and how it affects the decisions that are made. Since the court is made up of justices who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the political landscape can be affected by which party is in power. For example, if a Democrat is president and nominates a liberal justice, then the court will become more liberal.

As we can see from our analysis above, we currently have more justices on seats that have been put there by Republican presidents (Bush and Trump) than by Democrat presidents (Clinton, Obama and Biden).

The Future of the Court

The future of the Supreme Court is difficult to predict. Having more liberal or more conservative justices could lead to a number of 5-4 right word leading decisions. However, there is always the possibility that a justice could retire or die, which could lead to a more liberal or conservative court, depending on which president is currently in power.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, if Democrats continue to hold the presidency and a majority in the Senate, we may see an addition of liberal justices. This could have a major impact on rulings made in the future, particularly with regard to hot-button topics such as abortion and gun control. The court could very easily, if it keeps its conservative majority, uphold state level abortion law bans, voting right restrictions, and the dismissal of LGBTQ rights . Such court rulings could very easily help subvert democracy.

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