Do You Know Why Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

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A hot button topic in the news these days, Supreme Court nominations – and the justices themselves – have come under increased scrutiny in recent years due to the fact that once approved, they serve for life. With increasing life spans for both men and women, justices can now be expected to serve an average of 35 years, much longer than the 16 years they served in the past, which mean the choices are more important than ever.

If you’ve never thought about why the appointment to the highest court in the land could potentially be one of the longest, well, here’s your chance to get answers to the question you never thought to ask. And if you have – congrats! And here we go…

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First off, the Constitution doesn’t necessarily say they have to serve until the die or retire. Article III says that judges “shall hold their offices during good behavior,” which technically means there’s no term limit, but a justice could potentially be removed for dancing naked on tables or whatever. Not many have – in the history of the United States, only 15 federal judges have ever been impeached (8 of them removed).

The only Supreme Court justice that Congress even tried to remove was Samuel Chase, and that was back in 1796. He was impeached by the House of Representatives for, among other things, promoting his political views from the bench, but he was acquitted on all counts by the Senate. He remained a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The reasoning behind making the appointments for life is to attempt to shield the court from partisan politics. The court is supposed to act as a check against the powers of Congress and the president, which means judges who don’t have to worry about being replaced in a changing of the guard should be able to rule without feeling political pressure. There is even data that suggests justices tend to shift leftward as they age, and with a lifetime appointment, they can’t be replaced by a more conservative judge if they change their views.

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Alexander Hamilton weighed in on the decision in Federalist No.78, saying that the lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws. The judiciary is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches, and nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence as permanency in office.”

Which is all to say, the lifetime appointments of Supreme Court justices might be a longstanding tradition, but it’s not law – nor is it the norm in other parts of the world. Most democracies employ either term limits or mandatory retirement ages, and there have been recent proposals to implement similar polices here. Term limits could combat imbalances like we’re currently seeing implemented, which would also make the political stakes for appointments slightly lower.

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That said, there are still plenty of kinks to work out (hypothetically, of course) – like, if all of the justices were appointed at roughly the same time or were roughly the same age, it would be possible for a single president to end up nominating most of the Court, etc.

I’m not sure it’s something we’ll see anytime soon, but it is interesting to note that it’s being discussed – and that there’s nothing in the Constitution to prevent it.