The Origins (And Fragility) of Judicial Independence
81 Pages Posted: 5 May 2017 Last revised: 8 Sep 2021
Date Written: March 16, 2018
The federal judiciary today takes certain things for granted. Political actors will not attempt to remove Article III judges outside the impeachment process; they will not obstruct federal court orders; and they will not tinker with the Supreme Court’s size in order to pack it with like-minded Justices. And yet a closer look reveals that these “self-evident truths” of judicial independence are neither self-evident nor necessary implications of our constitutional text, structure, and history. This Article demonstrates that many government officials once viewed these court-curbing measures as not only constitutionally permissible but also desirable (and politically viable) methods of “checking” the judiciary. The Article tells the story of how political actors came to treat each measure as “out of bounds” and thus built what the Article calls “conventions of judicial independence.” But implicit in this story is a cautionary tale about the fragility of judicial independence. Indeed, this account underscores the extent to which judicial independence is politically constructed and historically contingent. Particularly at a time when government officials seem willing to depart from other longstanding norms, federal judges should take none of their current protections for granted.
Keywords: judicial independence, court packing, federal jurisdiction, Article III, court curbing
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