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Sen. Warren discusses expanding the Supreme Court, Powell, the CARE Act and more

Sen. Warren file photo
Sen. Warren file photo

Saying she doesn’t come to the conclusion lightly, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren says it’s time to expand the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court. The Democrat says Congress should expand the Court by four seats “to restore integrity to a broken institution.” A task force empaneled by President Biden to study the function of the court is also recommending term limits instead of lifetime appointments for justices.

How did you come to this decision?

So, you know, it starts with the fact that this course has been hijacked. Mitch McConnell with stole a Supreme Court seat from Barack Obama, and then turned around and rammed through another Supreme Court nomination just a few weeks before Joe Biden was elected to the presidency. And now there is a 6-3 supermajority of conservatives on the court. And instead of trying to come back to the middle and say, as they all did, during their nomination hearings, we're going to follow the rule of law, instead, they are leaning in to more extremist positions. And in area after area after area, unions, voters’ rights, and now Roe v. Wade, they're saying they're going to undo decades and decades and decades of law, because they want a more conservative nation out of step with the rest of America. I don't want to have to change the Supreme Court. That's not where I want to be. But this is too far out now. And it undermines our democracy. And that's why I think we can do what Congress is authorized to do under the Constitution, and has done seven times before, and that is to change the number of justices.

Why the number four? Why did you settle on that amount of new justices?

You know, if people wanted to do more, I could understand that, I'd be glad to engage in in that conversation. But four pulls us back to a more moderate court. And I think that's the place we need to be, a court that not only says when people are up for nomination, that we will follow the rule of law and established law, but a court that actually lives that every day.

Isn't there always the danger that if Democrats while they're in charge of Congress expand the court by X number of seats that the Republicans will just do the same or more when they win back control?

Look, if Mitch McConnell thinks he would be helped by changing any rule, he's made it clear that he's willing to do that. What concerns me is when he hijacks two seats, when he steals one seat from Barack Obama and cuts the court down to only eight members for over a year, and then turns around and jams through Amy Coney Barrett, when there's just a few weeks until a national election, neither of those things had ever been done before.

If we don't have a response, then all we're doing is emboldening him to do whatever he wants to do next. That's not how a democracy works. There have to be consequences for breaking an institution. And this, to me, is the least aggressive of the ways we can change the Supreme Court. You know, you mentioned earlier that the group studying the Supreme Court said, Well, why don't you put in term limits. And I understand that I think that's probably a good idea, but it takes a constitutional amendment. And that takes a very, very long time. Changing the number of justices, shoot, that just takes the majority in the House and the Senate, and the President to sign off on it.

Democrats are having a hard time getting to 50 votes on some of President Biden's domestic agenda in the Senate. How popular is your idea to expand the core among your colleagues, though?

I know it's tough. And there are a lot of people who haven't really thought about it in a consistent way. But I think first the Voting Rights Act, gutting The Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court did, I think taking the legs out from underneath unions, and now, the court signaling that it's going to either overturn or badly undermine Roe v. Wade, has been a real wakeup call. And the world is shifting, people are coming to realize, including senators, are coming to realize that if the Supreme Court is going to gut whatever established laws they don't like, and undermine our democracy on voting, then it's time for us to act. So look, we don't have the votes today. But that's not the point. The point is you don't get what you don't fight for. And I think it's time to start fighting to change the number of justices on the Supreme Court.

Senator Warren, our time is limited. So I'd like to move to a lightning round on a variety of other issues with you, if possible.

OK. I’ll do my best.

Today you're reintroducing the Care Act, the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency act, what would it do, how does it approach the substance use epidemic?

The idea is just to put more resources into treatment, more resources into training treatment professionals, and supporting the towns and cities that are on the front line. You know, 275 Americans die every day from a drug overdose. In Massachusetts, we're losing 41 people a week who die because they overdose. This is truly a crisis. And it's time for us to step up and put some federal resources so the towns that are struggling on the frontlines really have the help they need.

We're hearing that the Build back Better domestic agenda might now be pushed into 2022. What would that mean for your efforts to address student loan debt? And what happens if the loan debt repayment pause is not further extended?

Well, remember the student loan debt isn’t going through Congress.

Well, so far.

That’s right. The president has the authority right now to cancel that right to cancel student loan debt. And how do I know he can do that? I know he can do that, because Barack Obama cancelled student loan debt. Donald Trump canceled student loan debt. And Joe Biden has already canceled tens of billions of dollars of student loan debt. But we need a more comprehensive cancellation. And then you are right. It fits with Build Back Better to help our students afford college. Build Back Better has money in it for much expanded Pell grants for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for minority serving institutions. And even for childcare, which matters a lot to young parents who are trying to make it through school. So in that sense, you’re exactly right, the pieces do fit together. I want to see us get both of them done. And I'd sure like to see us get them both done before Christmas.

You've been a critic of Fed Chair Jerome Powell. He signaled this week that the Fed is likely to change its approach on interest rates over high inflation. What's your reaction to that?

Jerome Powell has always been an interest rate hawk and wanted high rates. My concerns with Chairman Powell, are over his refusal to ride herd over the largest financial institutions. My objections have largely centered on the fact that he has weakened financial regulations. And over time, that puts our economy at much greater risk. I think we need someone who's willing to be tough and willing to stand up to the big banks. And Chairman Powell has demonstrated he's not that person.

Last thing. Should Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey run for governor now that Governor Baker is not seeking a third term?

I'm not going to give the attorney general or anyone else advice about getting in the governor's race. She'll make a decision that she thinks is the right one to make. Fortunately, there are already some really good candidates in the race. But I think it's going to be interesting to see.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.