Watchdog group calls for Supreme Court reforms

A nonpartisan watchdog group is calling for reforms to the Supreme Court aimed at depoliticizing the contentious confirmation process for its justices and diffusing the power concentrated at the top of the federal judiciary.

A panel of former judges and legal scholars convened last year by the group Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released a report on Thursday detailing recommendations for how to restore public trust in the court, which has been shaped by partisan battles over confirmations in recent decades as conservatives solidified a 6-3 majority. 

"The political stakes of judicial selection, especially at the Supreme Court level, have cast a shadow over the integrity of that process," the report says. "The U.S. Constitution commits the responsibility of judicial selection to the President and Senate, which makes politics an inherent part of the process. But, under the present system, partisans have incentives to control the composition of the courts so as to try to affect the resolution of disputes in a way that furthers particular policy objectives and politics. This process distorts the actual and the perceived fairness and independence of the courts."

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The group recommended reforms that include increasing the number of seats on the court, term limits and having smaller panels of justices hear cases as opposed to all nine presiding over each one, a practice that's employed by the federal appellate courts that the task force says would "disrupt static voting blocks" on the bench.

The members of the task force, which was launched by POGO's Constitution Project, are Wallace Jefferson, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas; Ruth McGregor, a former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court; Timothy Lewis, who served on the Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit; and Judith Resnik, a professor at Yale Law School.

All of the former judges on the panel were appointed by Republican governors or presidents.

The task force called for adopting screening committees to recommend candidates for judicial nominations at all levels of the judiciary to thoroughly vet potential judges.

And it recommended changes to how the court selects cases, its ethical standards for justices and its lack of transparency.

The report expresses concern over how the political stakes involved in the court's decisionmaking and selection processes has affected the public's confidence in the judicial system's independence.

"Our hope is that, by focusing on how to alter the incentives that make judicial selection such a high stakes proposition, these proposals will assist justices in carrying out their important obligations and in staying above the political fray," the report reads.