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The Lockean Project

Packing the court

Packing the court – Monterey Herald, 4-18-2021

A number of Democratic Party senators now want to pack the U.S. Supreme Court. That is exactly what Hugo Chavez did in 2004. In a severe blow to judicial independence, Chavez’s supporters packed Venezuela’s Supreme Court, filling it with 12 new justices, ushering in a one-party dictatorship. With a hand-picked court, Chavez amassed the authority to degrade democracy, stifle free speech, corrupt the electoral system and abrogate property rights. He rigged the court system to ensure permanent control.

But what most observers failed to notice was that court-packing assisted the Venezuelan central government to consolidate power. Local cities and states lost their local, self-autonomous authority. Centralization had overwhelmed federalism.

Other autocrats in the past had done the same. Court-packing and judges dismissals were employed in perhaps the most detested government in history—the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. By 1934, Germany’s state’s-rights federalism was dead. Nazification of society led to policies that forced judges, public officials, and city council members to resign, packing them with Nazi-loyal selections. Anyone who resisted was arrested or imprisoned. The Third Reich had terminated local, self-governing autonomy.

Court-packing is frequently the primary tool in the toolkit of would-be authoritarians.

— Sharon Wood, Carmel