Justice Term Limits on the Supreme Court

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Most people do not realize the importance the Supreme Court has on their life. More importantly, they do not realize how the Supreme Court works and what kind of controversies are completely involved. Term limits are one of the biggest controversies involved in the Supreme Court. As of today, Justices on the Supreme Court do not have term limits. They are appointed for life.

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The Supreme Court is made up of nine Justices which are chosen by the President of the United States, and then confirmed by the Senate. The Justices are given the extremely important task of interpreting the law which Congress has passed. Because Justices are some of the most influential individuals in the American government, it is important to consider their term limits. Unless a Justice resigns from their position on the Supreme Court or they are impeached by Congress, they have a lifetime term. While this does provide job security for the men and women who serve on the Supreme Court, it may or may not be a good thing to have lifetime terms. For the regular citizens of America, this means that the way laws are being interpreted are not easily changed. For a new Justice to move in, one must resign, be impeached, or die. For this very reason, the President is elected every four years, and the House of Representatives every two. It brings a fresh, new vantage point to the government. Since this is not the case with the Supreme Court, there may be issues in the system, ones that can be fixed by giving term limits. Although, the Founders of the United States of America may have given Justices lifetime terms for a reason, knowing underlying facts.

The issue of Supreme Court term limits has two different sides: should there be term limits for Supreme Court Justices, or is life tenure an accurate, correct ruling. While the term limit controversy has not been a primarily argued subject, life expectancies have increased, meaning that Justices serve longer than they had in the past, creating disagreement in whether the Supreme Court is fulfilling its duty in a virtuous manner. Supreme Court Justices do not necessarily judge due to partisan lines, but more and more recently, this has been an issue. The Supreme Court has become more politicized than ever. With this information, it may be crucial to decide whether there should be limits on terms or if life tenure is still completely fulfilling its requirements.

Federalist and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton defended lifetime terms, and arguably provided the best case for lifetime terms. Federalist Paper no.78, a document written by Hamilton himself, states that Justices of the Supreme Court are to hold their offices during good behavior, giving the notion of lifetime term limits, unless impeached by Congress for corrupt behavior. His specific motive for supporting life tenure is one that is reasonable: with life tenure, judges and Justices would not be pressured politically by the legislature. There would be no reason to change their ideas and opinions to match political tension. Having lifetime terms means the Justices do not have to worry about losing their seats in office because of an opinion that is unpopular with the public.

Article III of the United States Constitution states something similar to Hamilton’s Federalist No. 78., saying that Judicial power for the United States lies in the Supreme Court and the judges will hold their positions if they demonstrate good behavior. Article III covering the Judicial Branch was ratified June 21, 1788. The Framers must have thought this rule important because of its placement within the Constitution. The Framers thought about terms for judges and decided that, in America’s best interest, there was no need for the term limits. No term limits provided a more balanced Judicial branch to compare with the Legislative and executive branches.

One argument for lifetime terms declares that Justices will be wiser and more educated through their decisions on the Supreme Court. With years of experience, Justices will more likely come to the most logical conclusion. Remaining rational and sound will fulfill the Supreme Court’s main purpose.

Madison’s Federalist No. 53 articulates the same as above:
Members of long standing…will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they will be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them.

With this written statement, it is easy to see the reasoning behind the Framers choice of life terms for judges and Justices. It gives the Supreme Court, especially, the ability to be an experienced team of Justices. Through their experience, they can accurately and fairly judge the cases presented to the Supreme Court.

Another argument is made that any politician who decides to change the rule of lifetime terms, will be reluctant in fear of their popularity and the public’s opinion. While this may not be the precise motive and one that should not be seen as important, it appears that for over 200 years, the Supreme Court has done its job with accuracy. There would be no reason to change something that is working correctly.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are many opponents to lifetime term limits, the biggest argument being that of the longevity of the Supreme Court Justice’s terms. On average, Justices in modern times serve 26.1 years, a very different length of time compared to the average of 14.9 years in 1789 to 1970. With this increased average of years on the Supreme Court, opponents fear that the Justices mental and physical health will deteriorate too quickly, leaving the judge with inaccurate rulings. Whether this assumption is true or not depends on the judge themselves, and the state of their mental well-being in the first place.

Continuing on with the age of Justices, supporters of term limits agree that, because of the older ages of the judges, they might not be able to accurately complete their jobs due to their antiquated thinking. Being subject to staying firm in their ways, the Justices may not judge in the modern mindset. Therefore, to supporters, it eliminates most of the purpose of the Supreme Court: to decide what is lawful and unlawful, while keeping the preference of the people relative. While this is desired, it is not always possible. Even if there were term limits and new Justices were introduced, part of the Justices duties is to interpret the law in the best way they know how to interpret it. It is not necessarily a matter of what the people want as much as a matter of correctly construed law.

The most common though of solution is an 18-year plan. Today, most Justices vote and act accordingly to a partisan line, not to what they believe is the best agreeing with the Constitution. The President is the one who appoints and nominates a Justice to the Supreme Court. The 18-year plan proposes that Justices should be limited to an 18-year limit, meaning that every two-years, a Justice would be nominated and appointed. This way, the current President can elect two Justices in their one-term period, and four if they have a two-term period. With this plan, Justices are fairly and accurately placed on the Supreme Court and can still be up to date with modern happenings.

It is said that with term limits, Justices would be more open to the people’s opinions because of the new politicians involved in elections. The competitiveness of the elections would bring a different outlook into the wants of the people. This is something America has strived for since the very beginning, when the Framers created the Constitution. While this is a seemingly good idea, the Supreme Courts job is to interpret the law using the Constitution, not to please the public.

Now that both sides of the argument have been discussed, it is clear to see that this is not an easy argument. If it were chosen to change the rule of life tenure, it would be very hard to accomplish. The ruling is located within the Constitution. The very idea of changing the Constitution, even for a good reason, could be detrimental. If one thing could be changed within the Constitution, that gives the impression other things could be changed, resulting in disorganization. Trust in Congress and the government in general may diminish, due to two facts: if the government tried to change part of the Constitution, (at least two-thirds of Congress would have to, of course, agree and the States would need to ratify it) it may not be accepted in a manner that is for the good for the United States, but as one that is harmful, and the Congress and the states together may change a ruling that should still stand, one that gives protection and comfort within America.

While it would be difficult, it may overall be worth it. American government is not perfect, but this may be a step in the right direction. The Supreme Court decides a lot of important things that are considerably significant to the public as well. Taking an interest in controversies like this is a clear sign that people care about their government. They care about the way it works and how they and their family can benefit from the government. The Framers made the Constitution for that very reason, listing rules that must be followed in order to have a government that works for the people and not the other way around.

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Justice Term Limits on the Supreme Court. (2019, Nov 07). Retrieved August 19, 2022 , from
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