Supreme Court Justice appointment should remain for life

Supreme Court Justice appointment should remain for life

Ever since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, there has been a maelstrom of criticism directed at the appointment process for our nation’s highest court.

The argument principally revolves around the idea that basically every time there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, a contentious and ugly fight filled with partisan politicking, ad hominem attacks and character assassinations ensues for who will fill the void.

Given all of this acrimony, a growing number of law professors, scholars and policymakers have begun to advocate for a reform of the process that would ameliorate some of the flaws associated with the current method and move us more in the direction of term limits for Justices similar to the kind that exist on most state high courts.

If we were to enact these changes, so the argument goes, we would drastically reduce the level of animosity and conflict that surrounds the judicial appointments, while at the same time enhancing our democracy by diminishing the power of unelected elites who rule indefinitely.

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Ostensibly this proposal seems like a noble effort to enhance our democratic system and depoliticize our extremely polarized Supreme Court, but it’s worth spelling out why a solution like this one is inherently flawed and how it would almost certainly make matters worse.

When Alexander Hamilton spoke about the judiciary in Federalist No. 78, he was almost excruciatingly lucid when it came to whether or not Justices should be appointed for life.

Not only did Hamilton profess that the measure would be advisable, he asserted that it was an “indispensable ingredient” to the Constitution and regarded it as “the citadel of the public justice and the public security.”

For all of our wondering about what the Founders really wanted for our government, we can surely deduce from Hamilton’s language that lifetime appointment of Supreme Court Justices was one decision that was of little doubt.

From a historical perspective, then, it is clear that term limits would not be prudent.

However, no one can deny that the judiciary has unquestionably changed a lot since 1789.

But even if we were to set aside what the Founders thought about lifetime appointment, imposing term limits on the Supreme Court would still not solve the problem, and would likely create its own entirely new set of issues.

Contrary to popular belief, the Founders did not create the appointment process for the Supreme Court with the same intentions that they had in developing the Electoral College.

While it seems counter-intuitive, lifetime tenure was actually meant to insulate judges from outside pressures that would make the Court less democratic.

One of the most powerful pressures that all public servants must deal with is their desire to advance to another political office, or even a position in business.

As Melissa Murray, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley argues, “term-limited justices might aspire to other political offices, or positions in business, and these post-term aspirations might shape their judicial decision-making on the court.”

As Murray illustrates, judges would likely become even more political than they already are, and the entire legal system would suffer because of it.

Furthermore, the mere knowledge that their time on the Supreme Court is limited would likely cause judges to behave differently.

If the Supreme Court were to have regularized vacancies every two years — as the leading notion of reform calls for — judges wishing to put forth a certain doctrine or reverse a particular precedent would make uncharacteristically sweeping decisions due to their worry of the constantly changing composition of the  Supreme Court.

For all its problems and imperfections, the Founders designed lifetime tenure of Supreme Court Justices to be as democratic as possible, and while the appointment process is certainly far from ideal, it is all we really have.     

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