U.S. Supreme Court Packing – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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The U.S Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
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Court packing is the act of increasing the number of seats on a court to change its ideological makeup. Most frequently, court packing refers to adding members to the U.S. Supreme Court, which currently has nine justices, to alter its political orientation. [1]

The U.S. Constitution does not dictate the number of justices on the Supreme Court, but states only: “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.” [2]

The number of justices on the Court, set at nine since the mid-19th century, has changed over the years. The court was founded in 1789 with six justices but was reduced to five in 1801 and increased to six in 1802, followed by small changes over the subsequent 67 years, as explained by Encyclopaedia Britannica: “In 1807 a seventh justice was added, followed by an eighth and a ninth in 1837 and a tenth in 1863. The size of the court has sometimes been subject to political manipulation; for example, in 1866 Congress provided for the gradual reduction (through attrition) of the court to seven justices to ensure that President Andrew Johnson, whom the House of Representatives later impeached and the Senate only narrowly acquitted, could not appoint a new justice. The number of justices reached eight before Congress, after Johnson had left office, adopted new legislation (1869) setting the number at nine, where it has remained ever since.” [3][14] [15]

The idea of court packing dates to 1937 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed adding a new justice to the Supreme Court for every justice who refused to retire at 70 years old, up to a maximum of 15 justices. According to Cicero Institute Senior Policy Advisor Judge Glock, this episode is frequently framed as a battle between “an entrenched, reactionary Supreme Court, which overturned a slew of Roosevelt’s New Deal economic reforms, [and a] president willing to take the unprecedented step of asking Congress to appoint six new, and sympathetic, justices to the bench.” Roosevelt’s proposal was seen by many as an obvious power grab for control of a second branch of government. Plus, as Glock points out, a then new law reducing Supreme Court pensions was preventing retirements at the very time Roosevelt was calling for them. [4] [5] [6]

The current debate over court packing has been heavily influenced by events following the Feb. 13, 2016, death of conservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Citing the upcoming 2016 election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused to consider President Barack Obama’s liberal Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. (The Senate, according to the U.S. Constitution, must approve all members of the Supreme Court.)  McConnell well understood that, should a Republican win the White House in the upcoming election, someone other than Garland, someone more conservative, would likely be selected by the new president. At the time, there were 342 days remaining in Obama’s presidency, 237 days until the 2016 election, and neither the Democratic nor Republican nominee for president had been decided. Because the Senate approval process was thus delayed until 2017, after the election, the next president, Republican Donald Trump, was allowed to appoint a new justice (conservative Neil Gorsuch) to what many Democrats called a “stolen seat” that should have been filled by Obama and his more liberal choice. [5] [7]

The court-packing debate flared up again in 2019 with the appointment of conservative Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh by President Trump after the liberal-leaning Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy retired in 2018. In the wake of this appointment, Democrat Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, then also a 2020 presidential candidate, suggested expanding the court to 15 justices. [1] [8]

Buttigieg’s idea was largely brushed aside as “too radical” until liberal stalwart Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Sep. 18, 2020, giving President Trump yet another appointment to the Supreme Court. Liberals, and some conservatives, argued that the 2016 precedent should be followed and that Justice Ginsburg’s seat should remain empty until after the 2020 presidential election or the Jan. 2021 presidential inauguration. However, McConnell and the Republicans in control of the Senate, and thus the approval process, indicated they would move forward with a Trump nomination without delay. McConnell defended these actions because the President and the Senate were of the same party (which was not the case in 2016, negating—from his perspective—that incident as a precedent that needed following), meaning the country had confirmed Republican rule and the legitimacy of filling the open seat without delay. He also pointed out that, should the Democrats have found themselves in the same situation, they never would have foregone the opportunity to appoint a new justice to the Court of their political persuasion. [5] [7] [9]

Another argument for filling the open seat without delay, before the election, was the fear that the 2020 election could be challenged in the courts, due to concerns over the handling of mailed-in ballots. If this should happen, it would be critical for an odd number of justices to sit on the Court (for an even number, such as eight members, could mean a split 4-4 decision on the critical question of who would be deemed the next U.S. president, sending the country into a constitutional crisis). At the time of McConnell’s Sept. 18 announcement via Twitter that the open seat would be filled now, there were 124 days left in Trump’s term and only 45 days until the 2020 election. Some call the rushed effort to replace Ginsburg with a new justice a version of court packing by Republicans. [5] [7] [9]

On Oct. 26, 2020, just eight days before the 2020 election, Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a 52-48 vote. [7] [24]

Should Packing the U.S. Supreme Court Ever Be Considered?

Pro 1

Court packing is needed to off-set the dangerously partisan Supreme Court.

With Republican President Donald Trump’s appointments of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Republicans have already engaged in court packing, and that demands a Democratic response.

According to Sam Berger of the Center for American Progress: “If allowed to stand, conservative court packing will have real consequences for a generation or more. Conservative judicial ideologues can limit rigorous campaign finance reform; place a judicial stamp of approval on anti-democratic gerrymandering and voter suppression; undermine unions; and gut reproductive rights. They can also undermine future efforts at progressive [liberal] reform through specious legal claims—and once the Supreme Court has ruled something unconstitutional, it can shut down policymaking in that space completely.” [12]

For many liberals, this fear was realized in June 2022, when the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization struck down previous rulings that had made an abortion a constitutionally protected right.

As Ian Millhiser, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Editor of ThinkProgress Justice, has further argued, “a rigidly partisan Supreme Court risks radicalizing the electorate against democracy itself” and, thus, “the case for court-packing is clear, and the course of action is obvious, if the Supreme Court tries to rig elections so that only Republicans can win nationally.” [1]

While the court packing debate has largely been about a majority conservative Supreme Court, the political spectrum could easily be flipped, with conservatives fearing the loss of their ideals. The makeup of the Supreme Court should not reflect partisan politics, but should, instead, reflect the will of the people and be beholden only to the U.S. Constitution. Adding justices would ensure that it never reflects only one party’s political agenda.

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Pro 2

The Supreme Court has an ideological imbalance that court packing can correct.

Beyond party politics, the Supreme Court is ideologically at odds with the country. Of the last 20 Supreme Court Justices, Republicans have appointed 15, or 75% of them. Even with the 2022 appointment by President Biden of Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court has only three liberal justices and six conservative ones. [10]

However, in that same period, Republicans have held the presidency only 58% of the time, and in 2023, only 45% of the country identified as Republican or Republican-leaning. The court should reflect the roughly 50/50 balance of the country. [25]

The three justices appointed by President Trump only magnified the political imbalance at the heart of the current Supreme Court. When this sort of imbalance exists, court packing should be considered.

As progressives Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin have argued, “We absolutely have to address the right-wing imbalance of the current court right now [Sep. 19, 2020]….There’s no way to rebalance the court without expanding it.” [10]

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Pro 3

Historical precedent allows for more than nine Supreme Court Justices, lending credibility to the notion of expanding the court.

The U.S. Constitution does not specify the number of justices on the Supreme Court. [1] [2]

As the Supreme Court FAQs page notes, “The Constitution places the power to determine the number of Justices in the hands of Congress. The first Judiciary Act, passed in 1789, set the number of Justices at six, one Chief Justice and five Associates. Over the years Congress has passed various acts to change this number, fluctuating from a low of five to a high of ten. The Judiciary Act of 1869 fixed the number of Justices at nine and no subsequent change to the number of Justices has occurred.” [13]

Originally, there were six justices (1789), the number was reduced to five in 1801, increased to six in 1802, seven in 1807, to nine in 1837, and to 10 in 1863, before shrinking to seven in 1866, and rising again to nine in 1869. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to increase the number to up to 15 in 1937, but Congress did not do so. [14] [15]

Ultimately, the number of Supreme Court justices is arbitrary, easily revised by Congress, and ripe for change. Court packing would simply be remedying a wrong by leveraging an option not banned by the Constitution.

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Con 1

Court packing would increase political interference in an independent branch of government.

oining the view of many Republicans, President Joe Biden (a Democrat) is also wary of court packing, stating in 2019, “No, I’m not prepared to go on and try to pack the court, because we’ll live to rue that day.” As he later elaborated, “We [Democrats] add three justices. Next time around, we lose control [of the Senate, which approves Supreme Court nominees], they [Republicans] add three justices. We begin to lose any credibility the court has at all.” [18] [19]

Court packing could be seen as “a maneuver that could come back to haunt Democrats when they’re out of power. What’s to stop a Republican president and Republican Congress from expanding it even more, to get what they want?” explains Washington Post reporter Amber Phillips. [20]

The Supreme Court is fiercely independent and frequently unpredictable, undercutting a simplistic view of its supposed partisan leanings. Of the 67 decisions in 2019, only 7 cases had the political split one might assume based on the supposed political affiliations of the justices. Justices have historically decided cases according to their own beliefs about the law and the case at hand, not because of any sense of obligation to the politics of the president responsible for their appointment to the court. [21]

The Supreme Court should not be subjected to the political machinations at the heart of court packing, which is nothing but a slippery slope that would allow each president to add justices for rank political reasons.

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Con 2

The Supreme Court, throughout its long history, has largely been balanced, making court-packing unnecessary.

The appointment of justices to the Supreme Court has largely been balanced between Democrats and Republicans. Since 1912, when the two major political parties settled into their current political persuasions, 52 justices have been appointed: 28 by 10 Republican presidents and 24 by seven Democratic presidents.

Michael H. McGinley, lawyer and former Supreme Court law clerk for Justice Alito, argues that packing the court would threaten the “rule of law and judicial independence.” He reasons, “While the press tends to focus on the small handful of 5-4 decisions in high-profile cases, the justices more often find themselves in broad agreement on the most difficult legal issues of the day. And when there are disagreements, they are based on legitimate and reasonable differences of opinion about the law, not the justices’ personal policy preferences.” [16]

As pointed out by Erin Hawely, Associate Professor of Law and former law clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts, and Heather Higgins, CEO of Independent Women’s Voice, “The argument about balance implies that the terms conservative and liberal apply to judges just like they do to political parties, even though those words have very different meanings and application when it comes to judicial philosophy.” Despite protestations to the contrary by advocates of court packing, Supreme Court rulings are seldom simple mirrors of the politics of the presidents who appoint the justices. [17]

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Con 3

Historical precedent strongly supports a nine-judge Supreme Court.

While the U.S. Constitution does not specify the number of Supreme Court justices, neither does it specify that justices must have law degrees or have served as judges. [13]

However, historical precedent has set basic job requirements for the position as well as solidified the number of justices. The Supreme Court has had nine justices consistently since 1868, when Ulysses S. Grant was president. [14]

Changing the number of justices has been linked to political conniving, whether the 1801 removal of one seat by President John Adams to prevent incoming President Thomas Jefferson from filling a seat or the 1866 shrinkage to prevent Johnson appointments or the 1937 attempt by Roosevelt to get the New Deal past the court.by increasing the number of sympathetic justices on the court. We should not break with over 150 years of historical precedent to play political games with the Supreme Court. [22]

Journalist Jeff Greenfield warns that breaking with precedent would cause trouble, stating, “If Congress pushes through a restructuring of the court on a strictly partisan vote, giving Americans a Supreme Court that looks unlike anything they grew up with, and unlike the institution we’ve had for more than 240 years, it’s hard to imagine the country as a whole would see its decisions as legitimate.” Court packing would undermine the credibility of the highest court in the land. [23]

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Current US Supreme Court Justices

NameTitleDate Justice Took
Appointing President
1.Clarence ThomasAssociate JusticeOctober 23, 1991George H.W. Bush
2.John G. Roberts, Jr.Chief Justice of the United StatesSeptember 29, 2005George W. Bush
3.Samuel A. Alito, Jr.Associate JusticeJanuary 31, 2006George W. Bush
4.Sonia SotomayorAssociate JusticeAugust 8, 2009Barack Obama
5.Elena KaganAssociate JusticeAugust 7, 2010Barack Obama
6.Neil M. GorsuchAssociate JusticeApril 10, 2017Donald Trump
7.Brett M. KavanaughAssociate JusticeOctober 6, 2018Donald Trump
8.Amy Coney BarrettAssociate JusticeOctober 27, 2020Donald Trump
9.Ketanji Brown JacksonAssociate JusticeJune 30, 2022Joe Biden

Discussion Questions

1. Should packing the U.S. Supreme Court ever be considered? Why or why not?

2. Does the current method of waiting until a Justice retires or dies and allowing the current president to appoint a new Justice work? Why or why not?

3. Brainstorm and research what the ideal Supreme Court might look like and how to achieve that ideal. Consider how many justices, the nomination and approval process, term limits, and other ideas. Make sure to support your opinions and argue why this court would be the best.

Take Action

1. Explore Ian Millhiser’s idea that not packing the court is dangerous.

2. Consider the “past, present, and future” of court packing at SCOTUSblog.

3. Analyze the Pacific Legal Foundation’s argument that court packing is dangerous.

4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing U.S. national senators and representatives.


1.Ian Millhiser, “Let’s Think about Court-Packing,” democracyjournal.com, Winter 2019
2.Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School, “U.S. Constitution, Article III,”  law.cornell.edu (accessed Sep. 22, 2020)
3.Brian S. Smentkowski, “Supreme Court of the United States,” Britannica.com, Sep. 13, 2019
4.Judge Glock, “The Lost History of FDR’s Court-Packing Scandal,” politico.com, Feb. 24, 2019
5.Maggie Astor, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death Revives Talk of Court Packing,” nytimes.com, Sep. 19, 2020
6.William E. Leuchtenburg, “When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed with the Supreme Court – And Lost,” smithsonianmag.com, May 2005
7.Abigail Covington, “Can a Supreme Court Justice Be Replaced in an Election Year?,” esquire.com, Sep. 20, 2020
8.Harper Neidig, “Buttigieg Defends Court-Packing Proposal at Democratic Debate,” thehill.com, Oct. 15, 2019
9.Mitch McConnell, twitter.com, Sep. 18, 2020
10.Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, “Should the size of the Supreme Court expand to change the ideological balance? | Pro/Con,” inquirer.com, Sep. 19, 2020
11.Axios, “The Political Leanings of the Supreme Court Justices,” axios.com, June 1, 2019
12.Sam Berger, “Conservative Court Packing,” americanprogress.org, Apr. 3, 2019
13.Supreme Court of the United States, “FAQs - General Information,” supremecourt.gov (accessed Sep. 22, 2020)
14.Elizabeth Nix, “7 Things You Might Not Know about the U.S. Supreme Court,” history.com, Oct. 8, 2013
15.National Constitution Center Staff, “Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices,” constitutioncenter.org, July 6, 2018 
16.Michael H. McGinley, “Should the Size of the Supreme Court Expand to Change the Ideological Balance? | Pro/Con,” inquirer.com, Sep. 19, 2020
17.Erin Hawley and Heather Higgins, “A ‘Balanced’ Supreme Court Isn’t the Point,” washingtonexaminer.com, July 9, 2018
18.Pat Rynard, “Joe Biden Interview: ‘Talk about the Future’ in Dem Primary,” iowastartingline.com, July 5, 2019
19.Matthew S. Schwartz, “If Republicans Confirm New Justice, Scholars Say Democratic Court Packing Is Possible,” npr.org, Sep. 20, 2020
20.Amber Phillips, “What Is Court Packing, and Why Are Some Democrats Seriously Considering It?,” washingtonpost.com, Sep. 22, 2020
21.Ilya Shapiro, “Liberal Supreme Court Justices Vote in Lockstep, Not the Conservative Justices,” usatoday.com, Sep. 10, 2019
22.Tyler Olson, “How Would Court Packing Work?,” foxnews.com, Sep. 22, 2020
23.Jeff Greenfield, “How Democrats Could Pack the Supreme Court in 2021,” politico.com, Sep. 19, 2020
24.US Senate, "Supreme Court Nominations (1789-Present)," senate.gov (accessed Jan. 20, 2022)
25.Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Party Preferences Evenly Split in 2022 after Shift to GOP,” gallup.com, Jan. 12, 2023