Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Today is the LAST DAY of this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

TODAY is the last day to meet our goal -- Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year.

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. (Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. (Photo: Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Our House Continues to Burn, Yet Some Insist on Trying to Reason With Fire

Tradition and aspirational values cannot matter more than the principles they are meant to serve.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

 by the Miami Herald

There is nothing sacred about nine.

The number was not carried down from a mountain on stone tablets, nor did it appear in a burning bush. In fact, before the Supreme Court contained nine justices, it contained six, the number fixed when the tribunal was established in 1789. Then, in an attempt to hobble his successor, President John Adams reduced it to five.

Then there were six again. Then seven. Then nine. Then 10. Then seven again.Since 1869, there have been nine.

So what to make of a speech last week at Harvard Law School in which Justice Stephen Breyer came out against the idea, now being floated on the political left, of increasing the court to 11? His fear is that the panel would come to be seen as a political tool, risking its credibility.

Nine is a lovely number, and bipartisanship is fine. But the power of the people? That’s the sacred thing.

But the court has been seen as exactly that since at least the aforementioned John Adams. And the only reason there is talk of enlarging it now is to answer an act of brazen political hypocrisy by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He notoriously refused to give a hearing to President Obama’s nominee to the court on the flimsy claim that it would be too close—eight months out—to the 2016 election, then jammed through a nominee from Obama’s successor a little over a week before 2020 balloting.

Which is not to say that Breyer’s fears are irrational but, rather, that we are faced with more immediate concerns: a moment of crisis, a national unraveling and many of us wondering if the country can survive. So Breyer is like a man polishing the china in a burning house.

And Sen. Joe Manchin? He’s dusting the cabinets.

The West Virginia Democrat recently came out against ending or modifying the filibuster, the parliamentary procedure that empowers the Republican minority to block legislation—in this case, a pair of bills desperately needed to fight a wave of voter-suppression measures the GOP is pushing through statehouses. Manchin, without whom the filibuster cannot be revised, told CNN that the Jan. 6 insurrection “changed” him, renewed his commitment to bipartisanship.

But there is nothing sacred about bipartisanship, either.

It is, to be sure, something to be dearly sought and highly prized. But it takes two parties to be bipartisan. And as McConnell’s theft of the court seat, that January insurrection and literally dozens of other examples attest, the GOP has, in a very real sense, ceased to function as one.

So the house continues to burn, yet some of us insist on trying to reason with fire.

It is frustrating to endure these encomiums to tradition and aspirational values while watching millions of fellow Americans retreat to their own private reality where fact is a stranger and anger flows from the taps. It is hard to be sanguine as Republicans rationalize rebellion and build a bonfire of constitutional guarantees. It is challenging to remain hopeful in the face of constant appeals to all that is low, fearful and mean.

And it is particularly galling to see Manchin dusting and Breyer polishing while you wonder who will get to vote next time elections are held. Tradition and aspirational values cannot matter more than the principles they are meant to serve.

Including the one that says, in this country, every voice, every vote matters, and we each have the right to say, do and be. Nine is a lovely number, and bipartisanship is fine. But the power of the people?

That’s the sacred thing.


Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. His latest book is The Last Thing You Surrender: A Novel of World War II. His column runs every Sunday and Wednesday in the Miami Herald. Forward From This Moment, a collection of his columns, was published in 2009.

TODAY is the last day of our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Texas Supreme Court Allows Century-Old Abortion Ban to Take Effect

"Extremist politicians are on a crusade to force Texans into pregnancy and childbirth against their will, no matter how devastating the consequences."

Jake Johnson ·


'What's There to Even Discuss?' Omar Says Free, Universal School Meals Should Be Permanent

"We have an opportunity to prove that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can still deliver big things. And we can feed tens of millions of hungry kids while we do it."

Jake Johnson ·


'Stark Betrayal': Biden Administration Floats New Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

"This is the third time since November the Biden administration has announced new oil and gas leasing plans on the Friday before a holiday," said one climate advocate. "They're ashamed, and they should be."

Jake Johnson ·


As US Rolls Back Reproductive Rights, Sierra Leone Moves to Decriminalize Abortion

"I'm hopeful today's announcement gives activists in the U.S., and especially Black women given the shared history, a restored faith that change is possible and progress can be made."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Indefensible': Outrage as New Reporting Shines Light on Biden Deal With McConnell

The president has reportedly agreed to nominate an anti-abortion Republican to a lifetime judgeship. In exchange, McConnell has vowed to stop blocking two Biden picks for term-limited U.S. attorney posts.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo