"Come to Terms": Fix the Court's Answer to the Problems Created by Life Tenure at the Supreme Court
“The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior…”
– U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section I
When our founding fathers gave Supreme Court justices life tenure on the bench, the goal was to shield those serving on the court from the political pressures of the day.
Today’s justices, however, are polarized along partisan lines in a way that mirrors our other broken and gridlocked political institutions.
While Supreme Court decisions used to be largely unanimous due to months, sometimes years, of consensus building, the percentage of 5-4 rulings is higher under Chief justice Roberts than any previous chief justice in American history. From health care to religious liberties to gun rights to business regulations, these one-vote margin decisions tend to be on the toughest and most divisive issues facing the nation.
The justices wield an enormous amount of power, and with lifelong appointments, they are free to push their personal politics in irreversible ways that affect the everyday lives of millions of Americans.
So how can we hold the court accountable to the Constitution and ensure that the justices remain both independent from political pressures and responsive to the will of the people?
One compelling answer is 18-year term limits. Right now, life tenure is doing little to ensure the justices remain above politics. If anything, the longer justices stay on the court, the more they pursue their own political agendas. Limiting Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms would solve two key problems with the court that have led to the extreme partisanship and harmful polarization we see today:
- Supreme Court justices now serve longer on average than at any point in American history. When the Constitution was written, life expectancy was around 40 years; it’s now more than double that. In fact, life tenure gives justices the perverse incentive to stay on the court until a President with whom they tend to agree is in the Oval Office – meaning some justices keep their seat until the “right” person is elected to the White House.
- Life tenure has turned Supreme Court nominations into a political circus. It’s no longer a priority to find the best candidate for the job – a candidate who will serve with integrity and real-world experience outside of a courtroom. Instead, the party in charge scrambles to find the youngest, often most ideological nominee (who, at the same time, knows to say the rights things at a confirmation hearing) in order to control the seat for decades to come.
For these reasons and more, in May 2015 Fix the Court launched Come to Terms, a new project that is calling on the next nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court to pledge to serve for only 18 years.
A single, standard 18-year term at the high court would restore limits to the most powerful, least accountable branch of American government, increase the rotation of justices serving and broaden the pool of potential nominees – all positive outcomes no matter where you see yourself on the political spectrum.
For more information on Come to Terms, visit ComeToTerms.org.