Judicial Selection and Democratic Theory: Demand, Supply, and Life-Tenure

Posted: 24 Jan 2005


How ought a democracy select its judges? Critics in Canada, England, and Wales invoke the democratic values of accountability and transparency to call for a diminution in prime ministerial control over judicial appointments. In the United States, Article III of the Constitution's text directs that the President nominate - with the advice and consent of the Senate - life-tenured federal judges. Bitter conflicts about particular nominees have produced many proposals for changes of that system. And in those states that rely on various forms of judicial election, concerns focus on funding and campaigning. In short, both globally and locally, democracies debate the legitimacy and wisdom of various methods used to endow individuals with the state's power of adjudication.

This diversity of techniques for judicial selection illuminates the complex relationship of adjudication to democracies. Democracy tells one a good deal about rights to justice, equality before and in the law, and constraints on the power of the state, its courts included. But absent a claim that all government officials in a democracy must be elected, it is difficult to derive from democracy any particular process for picking judges. In contrast, democratic principles do rule out a few procedures for judicial selection - such as by inheritance or through techniques that systematically exclude persons by race, sex, ethnicity, and class.

In addition to examining the interaction between democratic theory and judicial selection, this article details the degree to which the life-tenured (or Article III) judiciary in the United States has become anomalous, both when compared to high court judgeships in other countries and to other kinds of federal judges - magistrate and bankruptcy judges - in this country. Article III judges have no mandatory age for retirement nor a fixed, non-renewable term of office. Rather, they serve relatively long terms - often of more than twenty years. In addition, they control the timing of their resignations, enabling them to bestow political benefits on a particular party. Further, Article III judges now have the authority to appoint hundreds of non-life-tenured federal judges.

A first conclusion that flows is that conflict over life-tenured judgeships is neither surprising nor necessarily inappropriate. Given the nature and form of power held by Article III judges, the political import of federal courts in the United States, the constitutional allocation of power to both the President and the Senate, and disagreements about what good governance entails, judicial selection is a ready opportunity for political signaling.

Second, debates about individuals seeking confirmation have been repeatedly used as a means of articulating legal norms. From the legality of the Jay Treaty in the eighteenth century to the role of railroads and unions in the nineteenth century to the rights of women in the twentieth century and gay marriage in the twenty-first, conflict over nominations has helped to identify certain issues as powerfully divisive and others as so settled as to be seen as nonpolitical.

Third, to see utility in debate about who shall serve as life-tenured judges does not mean that the current structure is optimal. With the growth in the number of life-tenured judgeships at the lower ranks and with the innovations in information technology, powerful participants in and out of the government have gained the ability to fill many seats with individuals identified with certain approaches to American law. Life-tenured appointments were always an opportunity for patronage, but when the slots were few and the length of tenure shorter, they could be used less successfully as a means of setting long term political agendas.

Therefore, and fourth, consideration should be given to revising the federal process. The Senate ought to increase its efforts to scrutinize nominees at all levels. Requiring a supermajority rule to confirm is one technique to signify that the power of judicial appointment is shared and that senators ought to take an active role in making life-tenured appointments. Further, Congress could create incentives, such as pension benefits or penalties, to encourage individual judges to step aside after a specified number of years - thereby generating more openings and reducing the long term impact of individual appointments. And, just as the Supreme Court has found constitutional the devolution of judicial power to non-life-tenured judgeships, it could also reread Article III to permit fixed times for retirement. Moreover, judges should be required to make more transparent their work and the rationales for their judgments.

Proposals such as these derive from democratic values of constrained power and dialogic development of the law. Thus, while the fact of a democracy does not drive specific selection methods for judges, it does inform rules about the terms of service and the mode of action of judges. Democracy teaches that no one person (judges included) ought to hold too much power for too long.

Fifth, such proposals, underscoring the political process and import of judicial selection in the United States federal system, need not be exported. When democracies have histories of other techniques for making appointments or have more specification the judicial role, the allocation of power, and rights of individuals, as well as other means of debating legal norms, one would be hard pressed to advocate practices that make screening processes as publicly contentious as in the United States. Turning individuals - who have not yet taken their seats nor faced the particular legal and factual questions as they emerge through litigation - into vehicles for debating the shape of social values is neither the only nor necessarily a good way to have such debates. Both the people and the ideas become caricatures, and the peculiar decisionmaking processes of adjudication, with its fact-full specificity, become lost.

Suggested Citation

Resnik, Judith, Judicial Selection and Democratic Theory: Demand, Supply, and Life-Tenure. Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 26, 2005. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=653183

Judith Resnik (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1447 (Phone)
203-432-1719 (Fax)

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