There are few political appointments as important as an appointment to the US Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, judges serve for life. In modern times, that often means more than three decades on the pitch. Because of the longer lifespan, judges appointed over the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years for judges in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to wonder whether lifelong appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was drafted. But why do judges even serve for life?
For one thing, the US Constitution does not specifically state that judges and courts have a relationship in which death does us part. Article III states that judges (both of the Supreme Court and the Lower Federal Court) “must exercise their offices in good manners”. Technically, a judge could be removed if he no longer complies with the “good behavior”
The only Supreme Court Justice Congress that has attempted to bring charges was Samuel Chase, appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan federalist who vehemently opposed Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so in his role as a lower court judge or after his appointment to the Supreme Court. In 1804, at the urging of then President Jefferson, the House of Representatives voted to indict Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bank instead of acting as a bipartisan judge. However, he was acquitted on all Senate counts and served as a Supreme Court Justice until his death in 1811.
The purpose of giving judges a bench seat for the rest of their lives (or more often these days until they decide to retire) is to protect the nation’s supreme court from the type of partisans who who fight against the exemplary impeachment of Chase. The Supreme Court acts as a control against the power of Congress and the President. The lifelong appointment is designed to ensure that the judges are protected from political pressure and that the court can function as a truly independent branch of government.
Judges cannot be dismissed for making unpopular decisions. In theory, they can focus on the law rather than politics. Judges could be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once on the bench they cannot be recalled even if their ideology changes. For example, some data suggests that many judges actually drift to the left as they age.
The absence of time constraints “is the best means any government can develop to ensure the stable, honest and impartial administration of the law,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is.” constantly in danger of being overwhelmed, impressed or influenced by its coordinate branches ”and“ nothing can contribute so much to its stability and independence as durability in office. ”Without lifelong job security, judges could feel obliged to comply with the wishes of the president to bow to Congress or the public, rather than strictly restricting their work to constitutional issues.
While lifelong appointments may have a long history in the US, this approach is not the norm in other countries. Most of the world’s other democracies have compulsory, if not fixed, retirement ages for Supreme Court justices. UK Supreme Court justices must retire at the age of 70 (or 75 if appointed before 1995), as do Australian High Court judges. Canada Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75 , while the 31 justices of the Supreme Court of India must retire by the age of 65. Until her death at the age of 87 on September 18, 2020, the oldest female judge in the current US Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest judge in US history, retired in 1932 at the age of 90.
Although the US Supreme Court has never had time limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Proponents say term limits could address the partisan imbalance in court. Presidents would not be able to appoint judges based solely on someone who died during their term in office, and the dedication to political parties nominating a judiciary would be slightly less, potentially leading to the presidents and Congress compromising more on compromises enter. A popular proposal among political analysts and scholars is the imposition of an 18-year term, although critics note that this particular plan shows the potential that at some point a single president could appoint a majority of judges in the court.
In any event, such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means that it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, serving in the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifelong obligation.
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