Democrats sidestep controversial court-packing, reparations proposals with study commissions

When asked about expanding the Supreme Court, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that "everything is on the table."

Updated: October 30, 2020 - 10:51pm

Democrats are supporting federal commissions to study two controversial proposals — to  pack the Supreme Court and to pay reparations for slavery — rather than risk alienating swing voters or dampening base enthusiasm by taking clear positions in a presidential election year.

This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to share her opinion on expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court but signaled that she supports Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's idea to create a commission to examine court reform.

"In 1876, there were nine justices on the court," Pelosi said. "Our population has grown enormously since then. Should we expand the court? Well, let's take a look and see. And that relates to the nine district courts. Maybe we need more district courts as well."

Biden has declined to explain his position on expanding the Supreme Court ever since the topic came up during the first presidential debate with President Trump. Biden described it as a "bonehead" idea in 1983 when he was a U.S. senator. 

Under pressure to answer whether he supports adding justices to the Supreme Court, Biden said he wants to form a commission to examine the issue.

"If elected, what I will do is I'll put together a national commission of — a bipartisan commission of scholars, constitutional scholars, Democrats, Republicans, liberal, conservative," Biden said on "60 Minutes."

"And I will ask them to, over 180 days, come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it's getting out of whack — the way in which it's being handled, and it's not about court packing."

When asked about expanding the Supreme Court, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that "everything is on the table" in response to the GOP's decision to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the high court before the election. 

"Everything is on the table, but these discussions have to occur after the election when our caucus will gather and make some decisions," he said. "Nothing is off the table."

Schumer has also been asked if he supports Biden's idea to create a commission on court reform.

"Everything is on the table when we get the majority," Schumer told reporters. "First job, get the majority."

In the House, Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, which would establish a committee to "examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies." The legislation is supported by Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat. The bill currently has more than 100 Democratic co-sponsors.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker introduced the companion bill in the Senate, and California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, is a co-sponsor. 

To date, Pelosi has not described the form of reparations that she would support, but the California Democrat has come out in favor of Lee's bill, which would set up a reparations commission.

"As you probably are aware, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has legislation to study this issue, and I support that," Pelosi said at Howard University last year. "One of the things that we can do, not only just in terms of trying to make up for a horrible, sinful thing that happened in our country in terms of slavery, but for our country to live up to who we think we are."

Schumer also supports the legislation to establish a federal reparations commission. 

"The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow are still with us," Schumer said.