Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, decided to give what he called an eighth-grade civics lesson to those listening to the confirmation hearing Monday for President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

Sasse, who has a doctorate in American history from Yale University, used his opening statement to lecture those who were listening on what he said was the distinction between civics and politics. “If we can back up and do a little bit of eighth-grade civics, I think it would benefit us and benefit the watching country and especially watching eighth-grade civics classes,” he said.

Then he went on to depict the Democrats on the committee as engaging in politics but not the Republicans, drawing a tidal wave of criticism on social media from people who called him hypocritical — and a bad teacher of civics.

There were, it was noted, some basic problems with definitions. Whoever wrote the speech for him appeared to have misunderstood some legal terms — whether eighth-graders learn them or not. For example, Sasse defined “originalism” this way: “Originalism, also known as textualism, is basically the old idea from eighth-grade civics that judges don’t get to make laws.”

But according to the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia, that’s not what it means. It’s a theory of the interpretation of legal texts, including the Constitution. The center’s website says:

“Originalists believe that the constitutional text ought to be given the original public meaning that it would have had at the time that it became law. … Originalism is usually contrasted as a theory of constitutional interpretation with Living Constitutionalism. Living constitutionalists believe that the meaning of the constitutional text changes over time, as social attitudes change, even without the adoption of a formal constitutional amendment pursuant to Article V of the Constitution.”

To be sure, some commenters on social media liked Sasse’s “lesson.” For example:

But there were many more who panned it as nothing more than a political statement, not a civics lesson.

Sasse was criticized by many on social media for his remarks on “court packing,” a term historically linked to an unsuccessful effort by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to add six members to the Supreme Court after it struck down some New Deal laws.

According to dictionary.com, online searchers for the term “court packing” increased 23,225 percent Sept. 22 compared to the previous week, after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her death sparked the idea that Democrats might decide to add more justices to the high court if they win the Senate and the White House in November’s election.

Democratic supporters of the idea say that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) violated informal rules of Supreme Court nominations by refusing to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland. Obama nominated Garland in March 2016, eight months before the 2016 presidential election. Now, Democrats say Republicans are being hypocritical by pushing through a Supreme Court nomination weeks before the 2020 election.

Sasse, who refused to meet with Garland as is customary for Supreme Court nominees, came under criticism Monday for his comments about “court packing.” He said: “Court packing is the idea that we should blow up our shared civics, that we should end the deliberative structure of the Senate by making it just another majoritarian body for the purposes of packing the Supreme Court. Court packing would depend on the destruction of the full debate here in the Senate.”

Critics noted:

And there was this: Sasse talked about the importance of appointing justices not for their political views but rather for their ability to interpret law, without noting that Trump made clear he was selecting Barrett because of her positions on controversial political issues.

For example, Barrett has made clear her position on a Supreme Court ruling over the Affordable Care Act passed during the Obama administration. According to this Washington Post article:

Barrett has not participated in any cases during three years on the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit that dealt with the decade-old law, which has widened insurance coverage and altered many other aspects of the nation’s health-care system. Yet her academic writing and public action offer glimpses into her views: She has criticized the legal logic behind a Supreme Court decision that preserved the law and opposed a provision involving birth control.

Critics responded to Sasse this way:

And finally there was this:

Here is Sasse’s self-described eighth-grade civics lesson:

On the first day of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse spoke on the distinction between civics and politics, the importance of religious liberty, and the distinction between originalist judges and activist judges.
Sasse’s full remarks are found below:
I think it would be very useful for us to pause and remind ourselves and do some of our civic duty to eighth-graders to help them realize what a president runs for, what a senator runs for, and on the other hand why Judge Barrett is sitting before us today and what the job is that you’re being evaluated for.
So, if we can back up and do a little bit of eighth-grade civics I think it would benefit us and benefit the watching country -- and especially watching eighth grade civics classes.
So, I’d like to distinguish first between civics and politics because there was a time -- the chairman said at the beginning of this hearing -- there was a time when people that would be as different as Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- and she was a heroic woman -- that’s absolutely true, and Antonin Scalia, another brilliant mind and your mentor. People that different could both go through the Senate and get confirmation votes of 95 or 98 votes. And the chairman said at the beginning of the hearing he doesn’t know what happened between then and now.
I think some of what happened between then and now is we decided to forget what civics are and allow politics to swallow everything. So, if I can start I’d like to just remind us of the distinction between civics and politics.
Civics is the stuff we’re all supposed to agree on regardless of our policy view differences. Civics is another way we talk about the rules of the road. Civics 101 is the stuff like Congress writes laws, the executive branch enforces laws, courts applied them.
None of that stuff should be different if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or a Green Party member. This is basic civics. Civics is the stuff that all Americans should agree on like religious liberty is essential.
People should be able to fire the folks who write the laws and the voters can’t fire the judges. Judges should be impartial. This is just civics 101.
Politics is different. Politics is the stuff that happens underneath civics. Civics is the overarching stuff we as Americans agree in common. Politics is the subordinate, less important stuff that we differ about.
Politics is like if I look at my friend Chris Coons and I say “listen up jackwagon, what you want to do on this particular Finance Committee bill is going to be way too expensive and might bankrupt our kids.” Or if Chris looks back at me and says “Listen up jackwagon, you’re too much of a cheapskate and you’re underinvesting in the next generation.” That’s a really important debate. That’s a political debate. That’s not civics. Civics is more important than that. Civics doesn’t change every 18 to 24 months because the electoral winds change and because polling changes.
I think it’s important that we help our kids understand that politics is the legitimate stuff we fight about, and civics is the places where we pull back and say, “Wait a minute. We have things that are in common, and before we fight again about politics, let’s reaffirm some of our civics."
So, I’d like to have just sort of a basic grammar of civics for five minutes. One thing we should all agree on and two things that we should all disagree with. We should agree on it, but one thing we agree about and are in favor of, and two things that we agree on that we should all reject.
First, a positive, grand, unifying truth about America, and that is religious liberty. Religious liberty is the basic idea that how you worship is none of the government’s business. Government can wage wars, government can write parking tickets, but government cannot save souls. Government is really important. War is important. Parking tickets are important. But your soul is something that the government can’t touch. So, whether you worship in a mosque, or a synagogue, your faith, or your lack of faith, is none of the government’s business. It’s your business, and your family’s, and your neighbor’s and all sorts of places where people break bread together and argue, but it’s not about power, it’s not about force, it’s not about the government.
This is the fundamental American belief. Religious liberty is one of those five great freedoms clustered in the First Amendment -- Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly and Protest -- these five freedoms that hang together, that are the basic pre-governmental rights, are sort of Civics 101 we all agree on well before we get to anything as relatively inconsequential as tax policy. So, civics should be the stuff we affirm together. And contrary to the belief of some activists, religious liberty is not an exception. You don’t need the government’s permission to have religious liberty.
Religious liberty is the default assumption of our entire system, and because religious liberty is the fundamental 101 rule in American life, we don’t have religious tests. This committee isn’t in the business of deciding whether the dogma lives too loudly within someone. This committee isn’t in the business of deciding which religious beliefs are good and which religious beliefs are bad and which religious beliefs are weird. And I just want to say, as somebody who’s self-consciously a Christian, we got a whole bunch more really “weird” beliefs. Forgiveness of sins, the virgin birth, resurrection from the dead, eternal life. They’re a whole bunch of really, really crazy ideas that are a lot weirder than some Catholic moms giving each other advice about parenting. And yet there are places where this committee has acted like it’s the job of the committee to delve into people’s religious communities.
That’s nuts. That’s a violation of our basic civics. That’s a violation of what all of us believe together. This is not a Republican idea. It is not a Democrat idea. It’s a Democrat idea and a Republican idea, but more fundamentally, it’s an American idea. The good news is whether you think your religious beliefs might be judged wacky by someone else, it’s none of the business of this committee to delve into any of that in this context, because in this committee, and in this Congress, and in this constitutional structure, religious liberty is the basic truth. And whatever you, or I or Judge Barrett believe about God isn’t any of the government’s business. We can all believe in that in common.
We should all reaffirm that in common, and that should be on display over the course of the next four days in this committee. Now a couple of terms that all of our eight-graders should know as things we should reject in common. And again, shared rejection, not Republican vs. Democrat or Democrat vs. Republican, but a shared American rejection. And the first is this: judicial activism. Judicial activism is the idea that judges get to advocate for or advance policies, even though they don’t have to stand for election before the voters and even though have lifetime tenure.
Judicial activism is the really bad idea that tries to convince the American people to view the judiciary as a block of progressive votes and conservative votes, Republican justices and Democratic justices. This is the confused idea that the Supreme Court is just another arena for politics. When politicians try to demand that judicial nominees, who are supposed to be fair and impartial, when politicians try to get judicial nominees to give their views on cases or to give their views on policies, to try to get them to pre-commit to certain outcomes in future court cases, we are politicizing the courts and that is wrong.
That is a violation of our oath to the constitution. Likewise, when politicians refuse to give answers to the pretty basic question of whether or not they want to try to change the number of justices in the court, which is what court packing actually is. When they want to try to change the outcomes of what courts do in the future by trying to change the size and composition of the court: that is a bad idea that politicizes the judiciary and reduces public trust.
On the other hand, depoliticizing the court looks a lot like letting courts and judges do their jobs and the Congress do our jobs. You don’t like the policies in America? Great, elect different people in the House and in the Senate and in the presidency. Fire the politicians at the next election, but voters don’t have the freedom to fire the judges; therefore, we should not view judges, and we should not encourage the judges or public to view them, as ultimately politicians who hide behind their robes. The antidote to judicial activism is originalism.
Originalism, also known as textualism, is basically the old idea from eighth grade civics that judges don’t get to make laws. Judges just apply them. An originalist comes to the court with a fundamental humility and modesty about what the job is that they are there to do. An originalist doesn’t think of herself as a super legislator whose opinions will be read by angels from stone tablets in heaven. Judicial activism, on the other hand, is the bad idea that judges’ black robes are just fake, and truthfully they are wearing red or blue partisan jerseys under there.
We should reject all such judges, and so today, when we have a nominee before us, we should be asking her questions that are not about trying to predetermine how certain cases will be judged. A final term that we should be clear about, I mentioned early but I think it’s worth underscoring, is we should underscore what is court packing.
Court packing is the idea that we should blow up our shared civics, that we should end the deliberative structure of the Senate by making it just another majoritarian body for the purposes of packing the Supreme Court. Court packing would depend on the destruction of the full debate here in the Senate, and it is a partisan suicide bombing that would end the deliberative structure of the United States Senate, and make this job less interesting for all 100 of us, not for 47 or 53, because it’s hard to get to a super majority that tries to protect the American people from 51 to 49, 49 to 51 swings all the time. What blowing up the filibuster would ultimately do is try to turn the Supreme Court into the ultimate super-legislature.
Court packing is not judicial reform, as some of you who wrote the memo over the weekend got the media to bite on.
Court packing is destroying the system we have now. It is not reforming the system we have now, and anybody who uses the language that implies filling legitimate vacancies is just another form of court packing, that’s playing the American people for fools.
The American people actually want a Washington, D.C., that depoliticizes more decisions, not politicizes more decisions.
So, judge, I am glad that you are before us. I am looking forward to hearing your opening statement later today, and I look forward to the questioning you have to endure over the next two or three days even though you probably look forward to it a little bit less.
Congratulations and welcome.