Sinclair Broadcast Group’s national correspondents have reported on President Joe Biden’s commission to analyze Supreme Court reforms and congressional Democrats’ proposed legislation to increase the number of justices. But in doing so, they failed to mention the crucial context of how Republicans destroyed longstanding norms of governing while confirming at least two of the three justices nominated by the previous administration. Instead, the Sinclair correspondents falsely presented the confirmation of these three right-wing justices as the sole reason for Democrats’ attempts to reform the court.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) explained some of the reasoning behind the introduction of the Judiciary Act of 2021, which would rebalance the Supreme Court to 13 justices to match the number of federal circuit courts, as a way to counter “four years of norm-breaking actions by Republicans” which “led to its current composition and greatly damaged the Court’s standing in the eyes of the American people.”
And Markey is correct that Republicans engaged in years of breaking norms related to the Supreme Court between 2016 and 2020.
As Media Matters' Timothy Johnson explained, in 2016, “prominent Senate Republicans said they would indefinitely change the number of seats on the Supreme Court to eight, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.” After Republicans refused to give President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland a hearing, “this group of Republican senators said that they intended to keep the seat held by Scalia open indefinitely if Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election.”
After Donald Trump took office in 2017, Republican senators then removed the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations and filled that seat by confirming Justice Neil Gorsuch.
And following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in 2020, the Republican-controlled Senate and the GOP’s right-wing media and activist allies engaged in blatant hypocrisy, rushing through the confirmation of Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett just days before the November 3 elections.
But the Sinclair correspondents failed to mention any of these abuses of power by Republicans for political purposes in their coverage of the new proposed legislation to expand the Supreme Court or Biden’s Supreme Court commission.
On April 9, Sinclair national correspondent Ahtra Elnashar reported on Biden issuing an executive order to create the commission. Instead of mentioning any of the Republicans’ actions listed above, she suggested that the only reason for Biden to announce the commission was that Trump was able to further cement the court’s right-wing majority. She also pushed Republican talking points that it is Democrats who risk politicizing the court and misleadingly portrayed any expansion of justices as hypocritical of Democrats. This report aired on at least 29 Sinclair-owned or -operated local television stations in 29 states, according to a transcript search of the Kinetiq TV database.
Elnashar reported a slightly condensed version of this package during the April 12 edition of Sinclair’s morning news program The National Desk, which airs on 68 Sinclair stations nationwide. This report likewise left out any mention of the controversial actions Republicans took to ensure Trump was able to fill Supreme Court vacancies.
And on April 15, Sinclair national correspondent James Rosen reported on the introduction of the Judiciary Act of 2021. Rosen likewise failed to offer Sinclair’s local TV audience sufficient context about the bill -- that it is being introduced to counter previous Republican abuses of the Supreme Court nomination process. Rosen’s report aired on dozens of Sinclair stations before being re-aired Friday morning on The National Desk.
JAMES ROSEN (SINCLAIR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT): Under the measure introduced by House and Senate Democrats, the Supreme Court would seat a chief justice and 12 instead of eight associate justices.
SEN. ED MARKEY (D-MA): It will become more clear as each month goes by, as each decision emanates from the Supreme Court, that a fundamental historical imbalance has been created and it needs to be rectified.
ROSEN: But Speaker Nancy Pelosi flatly ruled out bringing the bill to the House floor.
HOUSE SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I don't know if that's a good idea or bad idea. I think it's an idea that should be considered. And I think the present is taking the right approach.
ROSEN: Campaigning in Iowa two years ago, Mr. Biden opposed packing the court with more justices, saying, “We'll live to rue that day.” Last week, however, under pressure from progressive activists and lawmakers, President Biden issued an executive order that created a bipartisan commission to study possible changes to the Supreme Court's membership, lifetime tenure, and jurisdiction.
With the addition of justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch, Trump nominees who have shifted the courts ideological balance to the right, packing the court has grown more attractive to the left, while remaining a non-starter for congressional Republicans.
ROSEN: This month Justice Stephen Breyer, a member of the court's liberal block, warned that court packing would damage the court and respect for the rule of law.
JUSTICE STEPHEN BREYER: It is difficult to deny that the court’s overall approaches reflect to a degree the changing political views of a majority of this nation’s citizens.
ROSEN: At 82, Justice Breyer is facing open calls from liberals to retire now, when Democrats control the White House and Senate. Only then, they argue, can Breyer avoid the fate of his fellow Clinton nominee Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who rebuffed such calls when Barack Obama was president, and whose death last fall created a vacancy that was filled when the White House and Senate were controlled by Republicans.