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Are Term Limits for Supreme Court Justices Reasonable?

View of the US Supreme Court Building on a bright Christmas Day
By George Khoury, Esq. on April 10, 2019 8:59 AM

Despite what it might seem, the United States Supreme Court is not an unchanging institution. It has been a bit bigger, and smaller, in its long and illustrious history. And most Justices seem to cozy up on the bench with their lifetime appointments for at least a decade, or a (seemingly) generation or two.

Notably though, one 2020 Presidential hopeful, Andrew Yang, has proposed a big change. If elected, he plans to set term limits of 18-years for SCOTUS Justices. Part of Yang’s plan also includes staggering the appointments such that in each presidential term, the sitting president will get two SCOTUS appointments, one in their first year, and one in their third year. In theory, the math checks out, but that’s not really the problem.

Justice Term Limits

The curious idea of implementing term limits for the High Court isn’t just some wildcard presidential campaign promise, it’s been around for some time now. Even the whole 18-year term, with appointments staggered every two years-thing.

But the fact is that the lifetime appointment was created for a good reason: To guard against partisan influence. Basically, because Supreme Court Justices serve for life and have a pretty high barrier for getting fired (impeachment), there’s less concern that the Justices will seek to curry favor among their political base (emphasis on the word “less”). If term limits were imposed, the Justices might be influenced to rule a certain way in order to lay the foundation for running for their home state’s Supreme Court, or another political office (or even to curry favor among private industries).

Given how the partisan divide on the High Court has become more visible, and High Court confirmation hearings can be complete media circuses, it makes sense that the term limit idea would be gaining popularity. One big draw back could arise in a two-term presidency, as it would effectively mean that one president would be appointing 4 Justices, which could cement the High Court’s partisan posture.

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