Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?
In this post, we’ll try to answer some of the pressing questions people have about the U.S. Supreme Court? What is the Supreme Court in the first place? When was it created? Why do Supreme Court Justices serve for life? And has anyone tried to change this?

The Supreme Court of the United States

In the United States, Supreme Court Justices serve for life, which is why it becomes such a newsworthy event when a spot opens up. Who is appointed, their views, political leanings, and policy opinions can all have a significant bearing on the future of the country. While occasionally a Justice will retire, more often they serve until they pass away.

What Is the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation. It serves as the final defense of the law and is responsible for all constitutional disputes and amendments. It consists of the Chief Justice (currently John Roberts, Jr.) and eight Associate Justices. Can you name the other eight?

The President of the United States is empowered with nominating new Justices in the event an opening occurs. This choice must must stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee, who will ask the candidate questions to get a sense for how well they will be able to execute the job. After this process, the full Senate gets to vote on the Supreme Court nominee.

History of the Supreme Court

The Judiciary Act was passed in 1789, and the first Supreme Court assembled in 1790. There are three major branches of government:

  • Executive Branch – the president and staff.
  • Legislative Branch – the Senate and House of Representatives.
  • Judicial Branch – the Supreme Court and lower courts.

Of these three, the Judiciary has retained the closest ties to its original formation well over 200 years ago.

The exact wording that governs Supreme Court appointments states that Justices can continue to serve as long as the terms of “good behavior” are met (the specifics of which have always been vague). This has meant that, in practice, Supreme Court Justices have been allowed to remain on the court for life.

The exact number of Justices changed six times before 1869, at which point the current number of nine was chosen. Despite the life terms, a variety of factors have contributed to a fairly steady historical turnover. In total, there have been just 17 Chief Justices and 102 Associate Justices. On average, there has been a new Justice appointed every two years.

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

No other major democracy allows federal judges to serve for life. Typically, they either set a term, an age limit, or both. However, the Founding Fathers opted for life terms in hopes of protecting the Justices from outside influence from other branches of government, such as the president, Senate, or House of Representatives.

The reasoning was that with their position secure for life, they would be free to act independently and in the best interests of all, not simply inclined to follow the whims of the majority. Their protection from removal would distance them from partisan politics. How well that has worked is certainly debatable but, at least in theory, Supreme Court Justices have no political affiliation.

Another somewhat strange contributing factor was a clause in the original documents that guaranteed that a Supreme Court Justice’s wage could not be reduced during their time in office. One interpretation was that forcing Justices to leave office based on a term limit or retirement age logically defied that guarantee.

Has Anyone Ever Tried to Change This?

Definitely. In fact, it comes up pretty much every time a new Justice is appointed: by the people, the media, and whichever branch of government is least pleased with the latest choice. And understandably so, considering the far-reaching influence the president wields with a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. Of course, there are many valid arguments to be made for imposing term or age limits.

  • Term limits in all areas of democracy are historically in place to avoid permanency and give the people a voice from time to time.
  • A mandatory retirement age would seem to make sense simply to ensure that age doesn’t become a factor in their ability to serve effectively.

The major philosophical roadblock, however, is that the very act of allowing one of the other governmental branches to impose a term or age limit on Supreme Court Justices makes the Court vulnerable to the outside influences it was designed to stand above. This assumes they don’t impose the limits themselves, which seems unlikely.

Is There Any Way to Remove a Supreme Court Justice?

Theoretically, any judge or Justice can be impeached. However, only 15 American federal judges have ever been impeached, and never a Supreme Court Justice. Also, technically, if a Justice were to be convicted of a criminal offense that would violate the “good behavior” clause. That has also never happened, and seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

This leaves only two options: death and resignation. Most Justices have died while in office, but in modern times, as people continue to live longer, resignation is becoming more common. However, only the Justices themselves can make this decision and, as of now, there is no mental competency requirement.

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