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In the Wake of Justice Ginsburg's Passing, Support for SCOTUS Term Limits Grows

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has shaken the nation.

But rather than celebrating the life of a remarkable jurist, the focus of the country has quite reasonably shifted to the effect her death will have on the institution she leaves behind.

If you think there’s something wrong with a system in which jurisprudence can be shifted for decades merely because of the death of an octogenarian, you are not alone.

In recent days, writers from across the political spectrum have waded into the court reform debate. And already, 18-year term limits have emerged as a favorite for those seeking a non-partisan fix for the Supreme Court. 

Many have responded to the current crisis by suggesting a term limits plan implemented by legislation. That plan, endorsed by Fix the Court, would allow justices to serve on the federal bench for life, but would limit their service on the high court to 18 years. Others have argued for implementing term limits via constitutional amendment. We expect this list to grow in the coming days:

Judicial term limits are the best way to avoid all-out war over the Supreme Court” [Washington Post editorial board, 9/21/2020]

“There is an alternative way for Republicans who are troubled by the hypocrisy their leaders urge them to embrace and Democrats who are reluctant to pack the court. The key would be to lower the stakes of any one Supreme Court pick, so the parties are not tempted to resort to all-out war every time a justice retires or dies. The best way to do that is to impose term limits — of, say, 18 years — on Supreme Court justices.

A smartly designed term-limit plan would remove the role of fortune in determining how many justices a president gets to nominate. Justices’ terms could be designed to end in a staggered manner so that an equal number of openings come up in every presidential term. Over time, more justices would have impact, preventing the idiosyncratic preferences of one or two individuals from determining U.S. jurisprudence for decades. This plan would also eliminate the incentive for presidents to pick young and relatively inexperienced judges merely because they are likely to live longer. And leaders from both parties could tell their voters that they have ensured that the other side will never again get a lifetime appointment.”

Set term limits for Supreme Court justices” [Boston Globe editorial board, 9/22/2020]

The idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices is not new or radical. It’s supported in both conservative and progressive quarters. The most talked-about plan involves staggered, regular appointments to 18-year terms. Each president would get two appointments per elected term, one every other year. In 1983, John Roberts, then an attorney working in Ronald Reagan’s White House counsel’s office, wrote a memo expressing support for term limits. ‘Setting a term of, say, 15 years would ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence,” wrote the future chief justice. “It would also provide a more regular and greater degree of turnover among the judges.’”

We’re all living too long for lifetime Supreme Court seats to still make sense” [Columnist Charles Lane, Washington Post, 9/21/2020]

“Whatever its precise features, the crucial advantage of term limits or mandatory retirement is to reduce the discretion members of the court have over how long they serve, and the accompanying incentive to ‘time’ retirement for ideological or partisan advantage, which is unseemly — and, often, futile.

An impartial rule that applied equally to all would lower political tensions and cross a major item off each individual jurist’s worry list.”

End the Poisonous Process of Picking Supreme Court Justices” [Yale Law Prof. Steve Calabresi, New York Times, 9/22/2020]

Justice Ginsburg’s successor should serve an 18-year term. The eight current justices should draw lots as to who serves terms of two, four, six, eight, 10, 12, 14 or 16 years as the amendment goes into effect. […]

This approach would end what has become a poisonous process of picking a Supreme Court justice. It will depoliticize the court and judicial selection, and thus promote the rule of law.”

The justices themselves can turn down the heat — by creating their own term limits” [Harvard Prof. Danielle Allen, Washington Post, 9/22/2020]

“In the near term, it’s up to the justices. We need the eight who remain to take it upon themselves to lower the stakes of any given Supreme Court appointment. If they could voluntarily establish a term-limits regime for themselves, presidents would no longer have the chance to shape the judiciary for a lifetime over the course of an eight-year administration. Every president would have the chance to appoint two justices in each term. This would meaningfully ratchet down the intensity of our politics and give the judiciary a fighting chance of making its way back above the fray.”

Andrew Yang in an exclusive interview says he wants Democrats to pack the Supreme Court and to put justices on 18-year term limits” [Business Insider, 9/22/2020]

“I suggested 18 year term limits, which would be plenty of time for judges to make choices feeling free of political influence, and would also depoliticize their appointments.”

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