Roosevelt decided to introduce a bill to allow him to appoint up to six additional justices. This could have led to a real crisis. But disaster was averted when Roberts voted to support a critical New Deal case and “Horseman” Justice Willis Van Devanter retired — the “switch in time that saved nine” moment for the court. However, Roosevelt may have had the right idea for the wrong reason.
The nine-member court is a product not of some profound debate or study, but pure happenstance. The first Supreme Court had an even more ill-conceived number of justices: six. In fact, when the court first convened in 1790at the Royal Exchange Building in New York, only two justices were present (fortunately, it had no cases on its docket). After that time, the size of the court expanded and shrank, largely with the number of federal circuits. Since justices once “rode circuit” and sat as judges in lower courts, Congress would add a justice when it added a circuit or reduce the number with the elimination of a circuit. Thus, when a 10th circuit was added in 1863, a 10th justice was added. In 1869, the court happened to have nine members for nine circuits. And that is where its size settled.
Justices detested riding circuit and persuaded Congress to end the practice in 1869. The court remained at nine members despite the fact that some federal courts of appeal now have as many as 29 judges. Ever since, we have repeatedly had 5-4 split decisions, with one or two swing justices dictating the outcome of cases. With the increasing longevity of justices, such divisions have become stagnant and bitter. Before Justice Anthony Kennedy was the primary swing vote, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was often the deciding vote and for years shaped the law according to her shifting views on subjects from the death penalty to privacy.
Some proposed Supreme Court reforms seek to break justices’ hold by rotating these positions among federal judges, while others call for mandatory retirement dates. But I believe that many of the court’s problems come back to its dysfunctionally small size. This is something that countries with larger high courts manage to avoid: Germany (16 members), Japan (15), United Kingdom (12) and Israel (15). France uses 124 judges and deputy judges, while Spain has 74. These systems have structural differences, but they eliminate the concentration-of-power problem that we have in the United States.
While the best number is debatable, I believe that a 19-member court — roughly the average size of a circuit court — would be ideal. Just because we settled on the number 9 arbitrarily does not mean that any number is as good as any other. A 19-member or so court has been shown to work efficiently where a larger court would likely be unwieldy. On appellate courts it is rare that one or two judges consistently provide the swing votes on all issues when they sit “en banc,” or as a whole. Appellate courts have also proved to be manageable while allowing for more diversity in their members. More important, the power of individual judges is diluted.