Venezuela used to be a peaceful and prosperous country.
But today, it is anything but that. Most of its citizens—nearly 1 in 3—are starving and unable to find food. In December 2020, the United Nations accused Venezuela’s ruling party of “instilling fear” in the population and violating human rights.
Well, in 1999, Hugo Chávez of the communist party of Venezuela became president of the South American country. After Chavez’s death in 2013, his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, took power.
Soon after, Venezuela went into a downward spiral. Years of hyperinflation caused the economy to collapse. Goods became scarce and violent protests spread across the country. Over 5 million citizens fled.
How did Maduro and the communist party hold onto power for so long in the face of such bad policies? Among other things, court packing.
No More Checks and Balances
While Chávez was president in 2004, his allies in Venezuela’s legislative body, the National Assembly, passed a law that increased the number of judges on the nation’s supreme court from 20 to 32. Those extra 12 seats were filled with judges loyal to Chávez and the communist party.
The result was a supreme court completely in the hands of the executive branch. In fact, the court ruled in favor of Chávez and his policies over 45,000 times.
Over a decade later, Chávez's successor Maduro added 16 new favorable judges in 2014 and 13 new judges in 2015!
Having a supreme court “packed” with activist judges beholden to him came in handy for Maduro. In March of 2017, the supreme court judges voted to dissolve the legislative branch entirely and gave all of its law-making powers to themselves.
Because of this, now Maduro and the communist party control all the branches of government in Venezuela.
We Shouldn’t Try Court Packing Here
Venezuela is obviously an extreme example of what can happen when a government does away with important checks and balances. But it is an important data point.
The framers of our Constitution didn’t create the three branches of government with their three separate duties arbitrarily. They did so specifically to protect our freedoms.
They knew that if the powers of making, enforcing, and judging the laws were given to the same government body, it would be easy for that body to reward its friends and punish its opponents.
Venezuela is a case study. That’s why court-packing proposals in the United States are so alarming.
In April, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill that would expand the Supreme Court to 13 justices from nine. Why? Proponents have been honest about it: they don’t like the current Court’s composition and want to stack the deck with their favored nominees.
Such a proposal is unlikely to pass the Senate. But the proposal itself is harmful, as it pressures the current Justices to do what the proponents want “or else.” It also invites future court-packing by those aggrieved if this proposal passes.
We don’t need a Court that rubber-stamps the executive branch, any more than we need a Court with hundreds of Justices. No matter your party or political proclivities, we should all be able to agree that court packing is bad for democracy and harmful to everyday Americans.
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