Term Limits and the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is composed of nine members, including the Chief Justice. All Supreme Court justices are appointed by the President of the United States. This is a prestigious position for which there is no term limit. Since justices have this position for life, there is much continuity in decision making across decades. Yet, the flexibility of the Constitution allows amendments to me made for changes to occur. Therefore, it is possible for the lifetime appointment bestowed on the members of the Supreme Court to be rescinded.

However, imposing term limits on federal judges is likely to yield tumultuous change. When choosing a Supreme Court justice, the President considers a multitude of factors. Chief among these factors is political ideology since justices tend to rule in accordance with the views of the President that appointment him/her. As term limits are imposed on the President, justices with ideologies similar to the President can continue to maintain that President’s influence on the country even after another President is appointed.

This could be detrimental if the President’s decision-making and ineptitude caused him not to be re-elected. On the other hand, even effective Presidents eventually have to be replaced when term limits are met. In this instance, the appointments made by the President, if any, could continue to influence the decisions made by the Supreme Court. The problem with term limits is that change is inevitable. Different justices have varying views on the same issues. There is an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the nine justices to maintain not only justice in this country, but order as well.

With only 5 rulings of “yes” needed, if no one abstains, the replacement of even one justice can have a major impact on future decisions. Currently, there are only 2 ways for a justice’s term to end. Justices may choose to resign or retire at any time. Also, illness or death will cause a seat on the Court to be vacant. By adding even a lengthy term limit, such as 18 years, the number of justices vacating the position will increase. As a result, the number and frequency of appointments to this position will change significantly.

Consider the significant transition that occurred within the Court in the early 1990s. From 1990 to 1994, an appointment to the Court was made every year except 1992. George H. W. Bush appointed conservative justices, David Souter in 1990 and Clarence Thomas in 1991. Bill Clinton appointed liberals, Ruth Ginsberg in 1993 and Stephen Breyer in 1994, who joined current liberal Justice John Paul Stevens. With the addition of 2 more conservative justices in 2005 and 2006, John Roberts and Samuel Alito respectively, George H. Bush shifted the weight of the Court’s opinions to the conservative side.

They are also joined by the outspoken conservative Justice Anton Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. Now that conservatives outnumber the liberals in the Supreme Court, the likelihood of decisions that restrict freedom increases, not to mention the overturning of previous controversial decisions such as Roe vs. Wade (1973). Although this was a 7-2 decision to legalize abortion in certain instances, if presented before today’s highly conservative Court, the ruling may be drastically different. The frequency of turnover in the Court can result in inconsistent rulings.

Also, previously established decisions such as Roe are placed at a greater risk to be overturned. An 18 year term limit would mean that the 4 justices appointed in the first 5 years on the 1990s, would all be due for replacement within approximately a year of each other, starting now. This number could be even greater should other justices resign during that time as well. As mentioned above, the Constitution is a flexible document to allow for change to occur. Term limits are imposed to provide others with the opportunity to hold such high ranking positions.

Change may not always be good, but without it, progress is stagnant. Since there is currently no term limit for Supreme Court Justices, appointments could last decades. For example, all but 2 of the current 9 Justices were appointed in their 50s. The exceptions are Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was 60 at the time of appointment, and Clarence Thomas, who was 43. Therefore, it is conceivable that the majority of decisions made 30 years from now will be made by the same conservative Court. Will these same justices be as in touch and up to date on the issues in 2038 as they are now?

Maybe much needed change will be prevented until the issues are considered by someone new. In conclusion, the lifetime appointment of a Supreme Court Justice should remain. Although there are benefits to having a term limit imposed, the stability of the country is dependent on consistency. The appointment of one new justice can have a dramatic impact on rulings made by the 9 combined. To increase the frequency of appointments would jeopardize previous rulings as well as the legitimacy of the Court. 


Toobin, Jeffrey. “The Nine. ” New York: Doubleday. 2007. ?