Take a gander at this sentence from a Washington Post report, written by Ann Marimow (a repeat offender), on the Biden commission on judicial “reform”: “Liberal lawmakers continue to back legislation that would expand the court’s size, a move Republicans consider court-packing.”
Now, if you used the term “court-packing” in America at any point in time between 1937 and 2016, everybody understood your meaning. The term, drawn from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s effort to expand the size of the Supreme Court in 1937 to affect the outcomes of its decisions, had a very settled meaning: changing the size of a court to affect the outcomes of its decisions. Everybody knew and agreed that expanding a court for that purpose was court-packing. Most everyone knew and agreed that reducing a court’s size for the same purpose was court-packing. Politicians would occasionally misuse the term, as politicians do, but because its meaning was firmly anchored in history to a particular event, those efforts were unsuccessful and were often greeted with derision.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the term as: “the act or practice of packing a court and especially the United States Supreme Court by increasing the number of judges or justices in an attempt to change the ideological makeup of the court.” Webster’s, which dates the term’s venerable etymology to 1897, is not alone:
- Dictionary.com: “[Noun]: the practice of changing the number or composition of judges on a court, making it more favorable to particular goals or ideologies, and typically involving an increase in the number of seats on the court  U.S. History. an unsuccessful attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to appoint up to six additional justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, which had invalidated a number of his New Deal laws.”
- Lexico/Oxford: “The practice of increasing the number of seats on a court (especially the US Supreme Court) in order to admit judges likely to further one’s own ends or make decisions in one’s favor.”
- Collins Dictionary: “an unsuccessful attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to appoint up to six additional justices to the Supreme Court, which had invalidated a number of his New Deal laws”
Dictionaries have become a fashionable ground for redefining words to advance left-leaning political goals, but even this one has remained constant (so far). But proponents of court-packing have kept up a drumbeat: that their ideas for expanding the Supreme Court in order to affect the outcomes of its decisions are not court-packing, while merely playing hardball over who gets nominated to a settled number of seats on the courts is newly redefined (when Republicans do it) as court-packing. The term “gaslighting” and references to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth get overused in political journalism these days, but this is as vivid an example as you could ask for. Simply by insisting that a longstanding word’s meaning is in dispute, propagandists get the Washington Post to treat the literal dictionary definition of a term as just what “Republicans consider” it to mean.
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