Most Americans, today, support Supreme Court term limits. Their reasons vary, but one of the more popular ones is that term limits can help lower the temperature of confirmation battles and reduce the nearly existential stakes of any given appointment.
But looking back to early America, I think there is a better reason to want to pull the judiciary, and the Supreme Court, a little closer to the people. As the antifederalist writer Brutus observed in the midst of the battle to ratify the Constitution, an independent judiciary of this strength, power and lack of accountability is “altogether unprecedented in a free country.”
“This power in the judicial,” Brutus warned, “will enable them to mould the government, into almost any shape they please.”–Jamelle Boule
Jamelle Boule, writing for The New York Times, discusses term limits for Supreme Court Justices. I have long believed that lifetime appointments promote impartiality and continuity. Jamelle Boule argues against that idea. He writes:
- The norm in the United States is for short terms for most government officers.
- An independent judiciary of this strength and power, lacking accountability, is inconsistent with democracy.
- Lifetime tenure may isolate Justices from the public.
- Long tenure, he writes, can go beyond independence to breed a kind of arrogance and contempt for the public.
Jamelle Boule concludes that term limits might “pull the judiciary, and the Supreme Court, a little closer to the people.” This isn’t necessarily true. The problem with the Supreme Court is that those nominated and confirmed are chosen as much on presumed and often concealed biases rather than on impartiality and character. Until we fix that problem by electing a more responsible class of Senators, term limits and similar fixes will prove ineffective.
Lifetime tenure is conservative; it has served us pretty well. We may favor change, but it won’t necessarily be change for the better. Justices proven to have acted improperly can be impeached. If Congress would agree to changes, which I don’t think they will, the terms of current Justices probably wouldn’t be affected. I would not be quick to change Supreme Court tenure based on current events or public distaste for some current Justices.