President Joe Biden's commission to study potential changes to the U.S. Supreme Court, including expanding the number of justices as some liberal activists have urged, is set to hold its first public meeting on Wednesday, two days after the court charged back into the battle over abortion.
The Democrat president signed an executive order on April 9 creating the 36-member commission to examine possible changes to the nation's top judicial body including expanding beyond the current nine justices or applying term limits instead of lifetime appointments.
The court has a 6-3 conservative majority after Biden's Republican predecessor Donald Trump made three appointments during four years in office.
The commission, due to issue a report in six months, will meet virtually as it swears in members, details its schedule, and details its areas of focus. Its two co-chairs are Bob Bauer of New York University School of Law, who served as White House counsel under Democrat former President Barack Obama, and Cristina Rodriguez of Yale Law School, who served in the U.S. Justice Department under Obama.
Republicans have opposed the idea of expanding the number of justices, sometimes called "court packing." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has denounced Biden's "pseudo-academic" commission as "an attempt to clothe this transparent power play in fake legitimacy."
The last time court expansion was seriously pursued was in the 1930s by Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt after a conservative court impeded his policies aimed at lifting America out of the Great Depression.
Liberal activists, eager to upend the court's conservative majority, have called for immediate action rather than waiting for a commission to deliberate.
"We do not have 180 days to squander on a faculty-lounge discussion to tell us what we already know: the Supreme Court is a looming threat to our democracy and in urgent need of reform," said Brian Fallon, executive director of the liberal legal advocacy group Demand Justice.
A group of liberal Democrat lawmakers last month introduced legislation that would expand the number of justices to 13 from the current nine. The White House and some senior Democrat lawmakers have balked at that legislation, preferring to let the commission to do its work.
The number of justices has remained at nine since 1869. Congress has the power to change the number and did so several times before that. Imposing term limits would likely require a constitutional amendment, though some scholars have proposed ways to accomplish it by statute.
Liberal activists remain enraged that Trump was able to appoint three justices, including filling one vacancy after Senate Republicans led by McConnell blocked consideration of an Obama nominee in 2016, arguing that confirmation would be improper during a presidential election year. Last year, days before another presidential election, Senate Republicans speedily confirmed Trump's final appointee, Amy Coney Barrett.
The court on Monday agreed to hear Mississippi's bid to revive a Republican-backed state law that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy - a case that could undercut the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure nationwide.
That case will be heard in the court's next nine-month term that begins in October, as will another dispute touching upon the nation's culture wars - a challenge to New York's restrictions on people carrying concealed handguns in public.
Rulings in those cases are expected next year. If the conservative majority limits abortion rights and expands gun rights, support could build among Democratic lawmakers for major structural changes to the court, according to experts.
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