Senate Democrats Introduce Bill To Make US Supreme Court More Transparent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), along with more than a dozen other Senate Democrats, introduced a bill on Wednesday requiring U.S. Supreme Court justices to provide written explanations and record votes for decisions in their emergency docket, also known as the shadow docket.

“Our Shadow Docket Sunlight Act would open these decisions to greater public view and scrutiny— literally bringing light and accountability to outcomes of important cases now handed down in peremptory silence,” Blumenthal said in a statement

The court’s shadow docket includes requests for immediate action from the court and primarily consists of requests to pause a lower court’s order, which voids a decision in a case while an appeal is ongoing. These cases require extraordinary circumstances and proof that people would suffer “irreparable harm” if the ruling was left in place.

The justices have previously utilized the shadow docket to make decisions on COVID-19 policies, abortion access, immigration and redistricting

In one of the most recent cases on the shadow docket, the Court granted requests from Louisiana, Black voters and civil rights organizations to allow the state’s new congressional map to remain in place while they considered an appeal over a lower court ruling that struck it down.

Unlike the normal appeals process, cases that go through the Court’s shadow docket don’t have a full briefing and oral argument. The decisions are usually handed down in just a few days or weeks, released in short written orders with little to no reasoning — often not saying which justices supported or opposed it.

Blumenthal, a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, introduced the Shadow Docket Sunlight Act to try to increase transparency within the nation’s highest court. 

This bill is co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Il.) and others including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

This bill requires justices to provide a written explanation and indication of how each voted for decisions on the shadow docket. It also requires the Federal Judicial Center to report the Supreme Court’s compliance with the law to Congress each year.

A handful of Democratic Senators recently criticized the court’s increased use of the shadow docket, especially for important issues, which lacks transparency.

“All Americans should be alarmed by the Supreme Court’s growing reliance on its ‘shadow’ docket to resolve controversial and high-profile cases without any transparency – no substantive explanations, oral arguments, or reasoning,” Booker said in a statement. “This further pushes the Court’s deliberations and decisions out of view of public scrutiny and shields it from accountability.”

Booker noted that the bill can help restore trust in the court and Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — another co-sponsor of the bill — added that trust is incredibly important right now.

“The American public’s trust in our Supreme Court and our democracy is eroded. When our highest court increasingly relies on the shadow docket to advance a conservative agenda, that only further chips away at that trust,” Welch said. “Transparency is more important than ever.”

The Shadow Docket Sunlight Act is endorsed by numerous organizations that seek to hold federal courts accountable, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Fix the Court, Demand Justice, Stand Up America and Court Accountability.

“We encourage the Senate to give serious consideration to this important legislation and bring it to the floor for a swift vote,” Debra Perlin, Policy Director at CREW, said in yesterday’s statement.

Read the bill here.