WASHINGTON — Alarmed at Republicans’ success at reshaping the federal courts, Democrats plan to use their forthcoming party platform to push for “structural reforms” to the courts to counter what they describe as a concerted Republican campaign to pack the judiciary with “unqualified, partisan judges.”
The platform language, which was obtained by The New York Times, stops well short of saying what those changes should be. But backers of the plank, which was added during deliberations earlier this week, said the broad statement represents a significant advance toward beginning a conversation among Democrats about how to respond to the substantial imprint that President Trump and his conservative allies have made on the federal bench.
“I think it is a major turning point and a very important step,” said Pete Buttigieg, the former Democratic presidential contender who was a strong proponent of reconfiguring the Supreme Court during the primary campaign. “This shows the Democratic Party believes we need to undertake these kinds of reforms.”
The inclusion of the language in the statement of party goals was seen as particularly significant because former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumed nominee who is also a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been cool to the idea of instituting changes to the judicial branch. He has opposed adding seats to the Supreme Court — one idea pushed by the left.
Progressives saw his campaign’s willingness to accept the platform plank as a sign that Mr. Biden and his team were increasingly open to discussing that potential change among others, such as term limits for justices and judges or adding federal judgeships at the lower levels.
“Even this generalized statement of support for structural reform is a big step, considering it is Vice President Biden,” said Brian Fallon, head of the progressive judicial advocacy group Demand Justice. “I think it shows real progress for those of us who are trying to get Democrats to take the courts more seriously than we have in recent years.”
The Biden campaign declined a request to discuss the platform language, which has not yet been made public and was provided by party sources. One Biden campaign official said the position on the courts was seen by the campaign as more of a values statement than a foretelling of specific changes or proposals.
But its sponsors welcomed it and said the party had to be more forceful in response to the aggressive Republican judicial campaign that has transformed the courts by installing scores of younger, highly conservative justices that will be serving for years to come.
“I think it is a long overdue conversation about how we need to think about decades of court-capture by the Republicans and the right,” said Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion-rights group, and a member of the platform committee who submitted the court language as part of a package of additions. She noted that more than a dozen cases threatening abortion rights were moving through the courts.
“We cannot just sit by and say that is federal law while Trump has got the courts for a generation,” she said. “It is just not acceptable.”
Anxious about Mr. Biden’s views on court restructuring, more than 20 liberal groups wrote to the platform committee in mid-July urging provisions be included to demonstrate that Democrats recognized the need to make changes to overcome what they saw as an imbalance driven by hardball Republican tactics.
They pointed to the 2016 blockade by Senate Republicans of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland to the Supreme Court, as well as Republicans’ stalling of judicial candidates and outright refusal to consider Mr. Obama’s court nominees after the party took control of the Senate majority in 2015. Those acts handed Mr. Trump scores of vacancies to fill upon taking office.
In the new platform language, Democrats say that Republicans “have undermined the legitimacy of our courts through an anti-democratic, win-at-all costs campaign that includes blocking a Democratic president from appointing a justice to the Supreme Court and obstructing dozens of diverse lower-court nominees. The Democratic Party recognizes the need for structural reforms to increase transparency and accountability.”
Another section of the platform, to be released in the coming days, promises that Democrats “will nominate and confirm federal judges who have diverse backgrounds and experiences, including as public defenders, legal aid attorneys and civil rights lawyers” — another objective of progressives who believe that too many past nominees have corporate law and prosecutorial backgrounds.
The platform language is a pronounced difference from 2016, when Democrats, in the middle of the battle over Mr. Garland’s nomination, included boilerplate verbiage about appointing judges who would “defend the constitutional principles of liberty and equality for all” and protect abortion rights. The thwarted Garland nomination was not even mentioned in the platform or during the convention itself.
Having gotten the attention of the party elite, activists say they can now focus on hashing out what kind of changes to pursue given that there are a wide range of ideas even among Democrats.
“This is a good mark of consensus that we need to do something,” Mr. Fallon said. “Now, we need to build consensus around the particular theory of reform. What we know is we want to change the trajectory of the judicial branch going forward.”
Republicans and other critics of Democratic plans to reshape the courts say that Democrats, unsuccessful in getting their way on judicial nominees through established channels, now want to upend the rules and muscle through changes to enhance their political power. Democrats counter that it is Republicans who have subverted the process to gain the upper hand over the judiciary.
“This is not about using structural means for ideological advantage,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “This is acknowledging that is exactly what Republicans have done.”
He did not anticipate that such institutional changes would be easy or quick.
“I know that some of these things could take a generation,” he said. “It takes a while to get from here to there.”
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