End Supreme Court Life Tenure


Juliette Fang, Staff Writer

Ever since its establishment in 1789, the Supreme Court has served as the highest court in the United States, interpreting hundreds of thousands of laws. Its nine Justices are the individuals responsible for hearing arguments and making the decisions on how laws should be interpreted. Unique amongst U.S. government officials, Justices have life tenure instead of a limited term. Rather than having a certain number of years to serve as government officials (like the president having four years per term), Justices’ terms only end when they pass away or voluntarily step down. Recently, however, life tenure has arisen as a problem since powerful government officials, such as Senate leaders or presidents, have repeatedly tried to take advantage of this system. This is why the most beneficial route for the Supreme Court to take is to implement term limits. 

So why does life tenure even exist? When it was first introduced, life tenure was supposed to protect judges from the pressures of different political parties. However, over time, judges gained more power and gave government officials more of an incentive to sway them to their side. The Justices’ increase in power can be attributed to the increase in life expectancy over time, which then increases the length of their terms. When the Supreme Court was founded in the late 18th century, the average person could expect to live to the ripe old age of 38. Therefore, life tenure was much shorter than it is today since life expectancy has nearly doubled to 77 years old. This means that today’s Supreme Court Justices have far more time to serve than ever before, and therefore can hold jurisdiction over a greater number of cases, thus gaining more power. 

As our country’s politics become more partisan, Senate leaders, presidents, and other powerful government officials have tried to take advantage of life tenure by influencing the confirmation process (the process in which Justices are selected) so that Justices favoring their political party are appointed. Since Justices have longer lifespans (and therefore longer terms) it gives them an increase of power. Having the majority of them favoring a certain party also means more legal power for that political party. Presidents may be more inclined to pick a judge that follows their political ideology to a greater degree and is more guaranteed to act on their own beliefs rather than following the rules of the Constitution and law. 

For instance, in 2016, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell infamously delayed President Barack Obama’s nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice for ten months, claiming that the nomination would be too close to the end of Obama’s presidential term. Then, in 2020 (during the year when Republican Donald Trump was elected as president), Trump immediately rushed to nominate Republican Judge Amy Coney Barrett after the death of Democrat Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This appointment by Trump was to secure another Republican Justice on the Supreme Court, therefore allowing the Republican party to have more power over the judicial branch of the government. 

Having a limited number of years per term would solve the problem of not only placing less pressure to nominate a Justice, but would also lower the incentive for politicians to try and sway the nomination in their favor, rather than choosing someone who is objectively better for the job. By making the nominations for Justices more regular, it gives each president and their supporters a fairer chance at nominating a judge of their choice. 

Another concern with life tenure is that Justices are more in danger of becoming out of touch with the ideals of the current population. The older a judge gets, the more likely it is that they will find the problems that the current generation faces as less relatable. If the Justices are updated more regularly by enacting a term limit, it can ensure that the current nine are more likely to reflect the wants and needs of the general public of the time. 

Although there is tremendous support for term limits, from both Democrats and Republicans, some still oppose it. Most of this opposition comes from conservatives that worry that introducing limited terms would cause too many upheavals in the law. This is an invalid concern because any change in the government, not just to life tenure, is guaranteed to make a difference, and so, the fear of too many major changes occurring all at once is unfounded. Another concern is with how constitutional this system is because limited terms are not addressed in the Constitution. However, neither is life tenure. Instead, the Constitution states that federal judges and Justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” 

Despite some opposition, term limits for Justices is a real possibility. Already, several proposals have been made in Washington D.C. to institute this system. Most recently, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) proposed the first Senate bill that suggests an 18 year term limit, so that a president could be able to nominate a Justice every two years. There have also been other proposals made in the House of Representatives that have similar ideas for term limits. 

Moreover, a recent poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research has found that most of the general public agrees with the bills that propose term limits. It found that two-thirds of Americans agree that Justices should have term limits; more specifically, 82% of Democrats and 57% of Republicans agreed. This is partially because of a record low amount of confidence and support for the Supreme Court’s decisions, especially concerning the recent overturning of Roe vs. Wade. As of 2022, only 25% of Americans showed approval of the Supreme Court, according to a recent survey made by Gallup. 

A commission formed by President Biden to examine changes that should be made to the Supreme Court recently released a final report that had also supported term limits. Should term limits be introduced, they recommended that it should be instituted through a constitutional amendment change. The commission is still awaiting a response from President Biden on the report. 

The United States is the only major constitutional democracy in the world that has neither a retirement age nor a fixed term limit for its high court justices. Among the world’s democracies, at least 27 have term limits for their constitutional courts. And those that do not have term limits, such as the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, typically impose age limits,” stated the report

In today’s political environment, it is becoming even more important that the people of the U.S. have faith in our judicial system. Placing term limits on the Supreme Court is not guaranteed to fix all of the issues in our government, but it’s a significant step forward to better reflecting the ideals of the public, reducing partisan politics, and ensuring the fair appointment of the people who guarantee justice under law for everyone in America. 


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