Supreme Court justices should serve no longer than 18 years, after which they'd serve on lower courts and/or fill in on SCOTUS when there's an unexpected vacancy.
Let's fix the mess caused by partisan confirmations and methuselan tenures by ending life tenure at the high court.
9/29/20: First-ever Supreme Court Term Limits Act introduced in Congress, with FTC’s endorsement
8/31/21: Bills don’t carry over from one Congress to the next, so here’s Supreme Court Term Limits Act 2.0
7/6/22: Here’s a creative new idea for implementing term limits, based on “backup law”
Why ending life tenure at the Supreme Court is good policy:
When the founders were drafting the Constitution, a primary goal was to shield the judiciary from the political pressures of the day. English monarchs throughout the 18th century were firing judges without cause, and the founders were hoping to guarantee some level of judicial independence from the executive.
Today’s Supreme Court is not only highly political, it’s also polarized along partisan lines in a way that mirrors other broken political institutions. Our freedoms sit on a razor’s edge, with the percentage of 5-4 rulings under Chief Justice Roberts near an all-time high. A single justice’s vote holds the key on health care, voting, civil rights and religious freedom.
With lifetime appointments, justices are free to push their personal, ideological agendas for decades with almost no accountability. So how can we move the court away from partisanship and closer to the founders’ intent?
One compelling answer is 18-year term limits, which would solve critical problems:
A single, standard 18-year term at the high court would restore limits to the most powerful, least accountable branch of American government. Each new justice would be added every other year, and since 9 (justices) x 2 (years) = 18, it’d take 18 years to reach the end of the cycle, hence 18-year terms. Appointments would become predictable exercises, not embarrassing partisan spectacles.
First, the Constitution does not expressly grant “life tenure” to Supreme Court justices. Rather, this idea has been derived from the language that judges and justices “shall hold their offices during good behaviour.”
Our proposal does not contravene this requirement, as it would keep justices on the federal bench as “senior justices” for life, either serving on lower federal courts, as many retired justices have done, or filling in on SCOTUS if there’s an unexpected vacancy.
Some may still feel that pushing justices into senior status would be too similar to forcing them into retirement. But “senior status” in the judiciary is a congressional creation, and one that has been almost universally accepted as a constitutionally valid interpretation of Article III.
We do take seriously the charge that this could be seen as a diminution of the position, and so our proposal would not impact current justices – that is, only future justices would be subject to this new regulation on service.
A lot of this comes down to how you'd handle the tenures of the current nine.