Think tank summit with FL ties convenes to pitch law blocking more justices for U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 24, 2020, as mourners wait in line to pay homage to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Credit: Laura Olson/States Newsroom capital bureau

A conservative think tank holding a virtual summit this week is pitching draft state legislation to prevent expansion of the size of the U.S. Supreme Court, which turned solidly conservative during Trump’s administration.

Florida lawmakers traditionally participate in the summits hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. The nonprofit describes itself on its website as a “nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis was working with ALEC in the spring to host its annual conference in Orlando in July, but coronavirus intervened.

Two pieces of “model legislation” being pitched this week to ALEC members are crafted to set up state legislatures to call for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to permanently limit the number of justices to nine. Read them here and here.

As reported Thursday by the non-profit watchdog organization Center for Media and Democracy, the model legislation would preempt efforts to expand the size of the high court to dilute its conservative tilt.

The center intensely scrutinizes ALEC’s work, describing the organization as a secretive, corporate-funded “bill mill.” The center spotlights ALEC-initiated legislation scripted for legislators who can file it as bills in their home statehouses by simply inserting the name of his or her state.

To limit the court to nine justices would safeguard the 6-3 conservative majority created during the Trump administration. Trump and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate seated three new and conservative justices: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and most recently Amy Coney Barrett, whose confirmation was rushed through just eight days before Election Day and just six weeks after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal.

ALEC members supported Barrett’s swift confirmation by the Senate because “her support for limited government, free markets and federalism.”

The composition of the court has ranged from five to 10 over the years but has long been at nine, according to USCourts.gov. It literally requires an act of Congress and approval by the president to change it from nine.

Democratic President-Elect Joe Biden has not clarified if he would seek congressional action to expand the size of the court, though that would allow him to nominate justices without waiting for a vacancy to occur. He has said publicly he endorses commissioning a bipartisan committee to assess options for the court’s composition, according to news reports and his BuildBackBetter.gov website.

ALEC is the same organization that circulated an open letter in July signed by 15 Florida lawmakers condemning the concept of a “federal bailout” for states with budget shortfalls because of the coronavirus pandemic. Those who signed included state Reps. Mike La Rosa, Randy Fine, Stan McClain, Mike Hill, Anthony Sabatini, Byron Donalds, Ana Maria Rodriguez, Spencer Roach, Tommy Gregory, Juan Fernandez Barquin, and Clay Yarborough, along with Sens. Dennis Baxley, David Simmons, and Manny Diaz Jr., and retired state Rep. Frank Messersmith.

ALEC also once offered model legislation promoting “Stand Your Ground” laws to states, though on its website, ALEC distanced itself in 2012 from Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute. Stand Your Ground, legalizing the use of deadly force in “self defense,” led to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, on a public sidewalk in Sanford.