Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Why Supreme Court Justices Need Term Limits

Since the death of Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, the politics around the Supreme Court have been quite nasty. Contention about whether politicians have gotten away with denying Supreme Court nominees during an election year has been high. This sort of political tension is unique because the United States is the only developed nation where the justices of a federal judiciary system have lifetime tenure. Because of all the hullabaloo, a single, 18-year term for Supreme Court justices has become a popular policy alternative to lifetime tenure.

When the United States Supreme Court first started, the idea was to shield judges from political influence. Keep in mind this was when the Supreme Court had less power, and the life expectancy was nearly half what it is now. But perhaps being shielded from populist whims is a good idea, especially with an election where Trump and Sanders are two major presidential candidates who hope to shove their version of populism down the throats of the American people if elected. Perhaps making confirmation hearings more frequent would only make things more politically contentious than they already are.

Even if the level of contentiousness does not decrease, one could argue that term limits would lead to greater dynamism. A lack of turnover usually means deadened thinking, and the justices stay mentally sequestered in their own form of an ivory tower (although to be fair, even with an increasing amount of 5-4 rulings, less than 25 percent of Supreme Court rulings are 5-4 rulings). The other problem with such isolation is that justices can and do evolve into something that you didn't intend upon nomination. Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, and John Roberts come to mind.

Justices are meant to enforce the law, strike down unconstitutional legislation, and guarantee constitutionally protected rights. When justices write laws from the bench, much like was done with the Obamacare cases of National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (2012) and King v. Burwell (2015). If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, imagine what lifetime tenure does. And let's not forget other issues, such as intellectual autopilot, decrepitude, diminished productivity, and eroded legitimacy by what has become a quasi-monarchical position with less accountability over time. As was asked so succinctly by Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker: "Do we really want eighty-year olds, who have been removed from active involvement in other work or activities for decades, and who receive enormous deference, in large measure because of their great power, to be greatly influencing some of the most crucial social, economic, and political issues?" Not really, no.

So how do we solve this issue? While ignoring justices or holding impeachment elections when judges illicitly rule sound like nice ideas at first glance, I still think the best bet is a single term for justices. Lifetime tenure seemed like a nice idea when justices weren't living as long, and when less cases, both in quantity and qualitative contentiousness, were presented before the Supreme Court. The dynamic has since changed. While I know it would take cooperation in the legislative department to temper the judicial branch, it would still be worthwhile to improve upon the checks and balances system that the Founding Fathers held so dear. Single-term appointments balance the concept of immunity from political forces and still provides a steady stream of justices so that things don't get stale or entrenched at the Supreme Court. While the approval rating is not as bad as that of Congress, I think that term limits would both unequivocally restore the integrity in the Court, as well as improve upon what has been a declining trend in approval of the Supreme Court.

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