Controversy: Supreme Court Justice Terms

An impending issue currently involves the terms of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices. They are enjoying extended stays on the bench due to an increase in life expectancy. In fact, Justices are now serving an average of 26.1 years before retiring or death—twelve years longer than they did when the average span of a judge’s tenure was roughly fourteen years. Therefore, a proposal has been offered that addresses this concern. Under this proposal a judge would serve a term of ten years; after ten years the Justice would be eligible for re-appointment by the President upon approval of the Senate. This proposal has the benefit of limiting a Justice’s time on the bench, but that is outweighed by the proposal’s flaws. Therefore, a second proposal of life tenure with limited bench sitting has been proffered which may offer a better solution.

The United States Constitution calls for a Justice to serve for life with impeachment a threat only on the basis of a lapse in good behavior. Judges are to be judged solely on their merit not on the decisions or judgments they make. From 1789 to 1970 the average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice was 14.9 years. Because of average life expectancy since 1970 that has jumped to 26.1. This allows for unchecked power on the bench because the Supreme Court is the highest and undisputed law of the land.

There has also been an issue involving the lack of vacancies on the court. At the end of the October 2004 term those current nine members had served together for eleven years, more than any other set of judges in U.S. history (Calabresi, Lindgren). Since there has been a lack of vacancies, few Presidents have been able to set the course of the courts by appointing like-minded judges; in years prior to 1970 judges were appointed roughly every two years. This undermines the efficiency of the democratic checks and balances. It also prevents the infusion of ideas that spring from the generational interest of the time. If every president was...
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