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Founding-Era Think-Tank to America: SCOTUS Term Limits Among Reforms Needed to Fix Our Democracy

American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ report released as new FTC polling shows ending life tenure remains widely popular across all demographics

Fix the Court is pleased to announce that imposing term limits on Supreme Court justices is one of the recommendations for improving U.S. democracy that the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a research institute founded in 1780, has included in a major report outlining generational civic goals released today.

This comes as a new FTC/PSB poll shows that more than three in four Americans support ending life tenure at the Supreme Court.

Aimed at bolstering American democracy ahead of the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, the Academy’s report lays out 31 reforms to strengthen civic institutions, ensure greater government responsiveness and improve representation – 18-year SCOTUS term limits via federal legislation among them.

Recommendation 1.8 in the report calls on Congress to “establish, through federal legislation, 18-year terms for Supreme Court justices with appointments staggered such that one nomination comes up during each term of Congress,” after which justices would “transition to an appeals court,” either on a full-time or part-time basis.

The report continues: “The Constitution stipulates that Supreme Court justices serve during good behavior, but it does not explicitly establish the type of judicial work done during a life term nor prevent Congress from enacting terms. […] Enacting eighteen-year terms for Supreme Court justices would go a long way toward depoliticizing the appointment process […and] would help move the Court toward a less partisan future, restoring its legitimacy as an independent arbiter of justice.”

“I want to thank the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for including Supreme Court term limits legislation among their recommendations for improving our democracy,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth said. “Ending life tenure at the Supreme Court is a broadly popular proposal that ensures the high court becomes less superannuated and more responsive to the needs of the American people. Scholars in recent years are increasingly in agreement that term-limiting future justices can happen via legislation, as the authors of this report themselves concluded.”

Norm Ornstein, an Academy fellow and a member of the commission that wrote the report, said: “Staggered 18-year terms for the Supreme Court will have many benefits: lowering the temperature of confirmation battles, widening the pool of potential strong justices and eliminating the actuarial lottery where one president in a term might be able to fill four or five vacancies on the court while another president might have no opportunity at all.”

Also today, FTC is announcing its latest survey results on SCOTUS term limits. New polling from PSB Research shows three in four Americans (77%) support restrictions on length of service for Supreme Court justices, while 23% oppose against. The survey of 1,100 adults was conducted May 15-18, 2020, and has a margin of error of +/- 2.95% at the 95% confidence interval.

Solid support above 70% is seen across key demographics including by gender, party, habitat (rural/urban/suburban), and age. The sole exception is seen among those over the age of 65, who – not surprisingly – are less likely to support restrictions which might include setting a retirement age for SCOTUS justices (68% support).

“While America today may seem deeply divided, the public appears united when it comes to reforms pertaining to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Adam Rosenblatt, Vice President and Senior Strategist at PSB Research. “It is noteworthy that this concept has enjoyed strong public support over the course of several years.”

Earlier FTC/PSB polls yielded similar results: 77% in favor and 23% against restrictions on the length of SCOTUS service in June 2019, and 78% in favor and 22% against in Oct. 2018.

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