by Jorge Gomez • 6 min read
The treacherous idea of packing America’s federal courts with more judges continues to float around. And now, more than ever, we need to learn from history why this court-packing plan will lead to tyranny.
Let’s start in 1983. Then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden (also the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at that time) made an illuminating statement, calling President’s Roosevelt’s plan in the 1930’s to pack the Supreme Court a “bonehead idea.”
Biden’s comment was almost prophetic. Just a couple of decades later, his words were confirmed by a blatant power-grab that unfolded in Venezuela.
Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1999, and it only took about five years for him to pack his nation’s highest court (The Supreme Tribunal of Justice) with a dozen more judges to carry out his political agenda.
Let’s explore why court-packing in Venezuela was indeed a bonehead idea that ultimately paved the way for authoritarian rule and the decline of political, civil and religious freedoms in one of South America’s most promising nations.
Court-Packing Destroyed Venezuela’s Constitutional Order
In 2004, Chavez’s allies held a majority in Venezuela’s National Assembly (congress), passing a law that increased the number of judges on the Venezuelan Supreme Court from twenty (20) members to thirty-two (32).
Those seats were quickly filled with Chavez loyalists. But it wouldn’t be the last time those in power manipulated the Court for political gain.
In 2015, opponents of President Nicolas Maduro (Chavez’s hand-picked successor) won a majority of congressional seats. But pro-Maduro members of the lame-duck congress rammed through thirteen (13) new Supreme Court justices who favored Maduro’s regime retaining power. That was in addition to the sixteen (16) pro-Maduro judges appointed just the year before.
This hyper-partisan fixing of the Court quickly devastated Venezuela’s constitutional structure. In 2017, the Supreme Court issued a shocking and dystopian ruling stripping the country’s national assembly of its powers, allowing the magistrates to assume legislative duties.
Court-packing also destroyed judicial independence. Research reports show that of the 45,000 rulings issued by Venezuela’s high court since 2004, the court never sided against Chavez’s government after it was packed. Not once.
Judicial independence and the impartiality of judges are cornerstones of a free society. But as the example of Venezuela shows, once courts are packed with activist judges to carry out the will of a political party, an independent judiciary and a constitutional republic are likely to wither shortly thereafter.
How a Rigged Court Spurred Violations of Basic Rights: Speech, Voting and Religious Liberty
Since packing Venezuela’s Supreme Court and turning it into a puppet of the regime, the liberties and rights of citizens have been on a downward spiral.
As recently as June of 2020, the stacked Supreme Court illegally named a new National Electoral Council—the agency responsible for conducting elections in the country—aligned with the Maduro regime.
In exercising this power, the Court deteriorated the conditions needed for a true representative democracy, depriving all Venezuelans of a fundamental political right: voting for their leaders.
Similarly, with a Supreme Court stacked in its favor, the regime has been given free rein to put in place laws intruding into the religious liberty of Venezuelans. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom notes:
“National laws passed within the past few years [early 2010’s] allow for the creation of ruling-party-dominated ‘communal councils’ to oversee the curriculum, teachers, and school administrators of all public and private schools, including religious schools, as well as the confiscation of Catholic Church property, including churches, schools, and other ecclesiastical buildings.”
On the state of freedom of speech and expression, Human Rights Watch also reports:
“For more than a decade, the [Venezuelan] government has expanded and abused its power to regulate media and has worked aggressively to reduce the number of dissenting media outlets. The government can suspend or revoke concessions to private media if ‘convenient for the interests of the nation,’ arbitrarily suspend websites for the vaguely defined offense of ‘incitement,’ and criminalize expression of ‘disrespect’ for high government officials.”
These abuses remind us that once government strips away liberties, it doesn’t easily return those freedoms back to its citizens, if it even returns them at all. Instead, they cleverly and conveniently package their power-grab with seemingly harmless terms like “new normal” and “court reform.”
Think about it. How can those in the minority (religious groups and people of faith included) appeal for justice, or reclaim their God-given rights, if the highest judicial body in the country is sold out and dominated by the ruling majority party?
Venezuela’s experiment with court-packing turned the country’s constitution upside down, and serves as a dire warning sign for all Americans.
We must come together now to call out and reject the dangerous notion of court-packing to ensure that “We the People”—not “We The Elites”—remain in control of our government, as our Founders intended. Otherwise, the only rights we Americans will have will be only those the controlling party in power WANTS us to have.
Court-packing was a “bonehead idea” for Venezuela, and it’s an equally disastrous one for America.