“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.
Though the court’s most contentious decisions used to be unanimous, or nearly so, due to months or even years of consensus building, the percentage of 5-4 rulings under Chief Justice Roberts is at or near an all-time high. 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:
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.
To paraphrase a John Roberts' 1983 memo, term limits would restore an important check on the most powerful, least accountable branch of American government, would increase the rotation of justices serving and would broaden the pool of potential nominees – all positive outcomes no matter where you stand politically.