Term Limits for the Supreme Court: Life Tenure Reconsidered

110 Pages Posted: 26 May 2006


In June 2005, at the end of its October 2004 Term, the U.S. Supreme Court's nine members had served together for almost eleven years, longer than any other group of nine Justices in the nation's history. Although the average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice from 1789 through 1970 was 14.9 years, for those Justices who have retired since 1970, the average tenure has jumped to 26.1 years. Because of the long tenure of recent members of the Court, there were no vacancies on the high Court from 1994 to the middle of 2005. We believe the American constitutional rule granting life tenure to Supreme Court Justices is fundamentally flawed, resulting now in Justices remaining on the Court for longer periods and to a later age than ever before in American history.

This trend has led to significantly less frequent vacancies on the Court, which reduces the efficacy of the democratic check that the appointment process provides on the Court's membership. The increase in the longevity of Justices' tenure means that life tenure now guarantees a much longer tenure on the Court than was the case in 1789 or over most of our constitutional history. Moreover, the combination of less frequent vacancies and longer tenures of office means that when vacancies do arise, there is so much at stake that confirmation battles have become much more intense. Finally, as was detailed in a recent article by Professor David Garrow, the advanced age of some Supreme Court Justices has at times led to a problem of "mental decrepitude" on the Court, whereby some Justices have become physically or mentally unable to fulfill their duties during the final stages of their careers.

In this Article, we call for a change to the life tenure rule for Supreme Court Justices. To resolve the problems of life tenure, we propose that lawmakers pass a constitutional amendment pursuant to Article V of the Constitution instituting a system of staggered, eighteen-year term limits for Supreme Court Justices. The Court's membership would be constitutionally fixed at nine Justices, whose terms would be staggered such that a vacancy would occur on the Court every two years at the end of the term in every odd-numbered calendar year. Every one-term President would thus get to appoint two Justices and every two-term President would get to appoint four. Our proposal would not apply to any of the nine sitting Justices or to any nominee of the President in office when the constitutional amendment is ratified. Moving to a system of eighteen-year terms for Supreme Court Justices would restore the norms in this country that prevailed on the Court between 1789 and 1970, when vacancies occurred about once every two years, and Justices served an average of 14.9 years on the Court. We recommend that the country recommit itself to the tenure practices that held for Supreme Court Justices for most of our history.

Suggested Citation

Calabresi, Steven G. and Lindgren, James T., Term Limits for the Supreme Court: Life Tenure Reconsidered. Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 29, No. 3, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 07-24, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=701121

Steven G. Calabresi

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

James T. Lindgren (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
773-294-9043 (Phone)

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