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July 05, 2013 4:46 PM When Should Judges Retire?

By David Karol

July the 4th weekend is always a good time to think about political power wielded arbitrarily by unelected, berobed rulers who may serve until their death.

In that light,this Reuters interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in which the octogenarian vows to stay on the high court “several more years” raises the issue of whether the U.S. is best served by retaining the system of life tenure for Supreme Court Justices.

In fairness, unlike George III, Justice Ginsburg is of humble origins,earned her credentials and was appointed and confirmed in her post by elected officials, albeit twenty years ago. So far there is no sign that she is losing her faculties the way he eventually did. Her robes are also significantly less flashy than the monarch’s or even Justice Rehnquist’s. Still, she, like all of her colleagues, exercises a great deal of arbitrary, unaccountable power and may do so for life. It’s much more in keeping with monarchical tradition than the Spirit of ‘76.

There was already discussion by liberal legal scholars about the desirability of Ginsburg retiring before the 2012 election and her recent comments are likely to spark further discussion and perhaps some agita on the part of liberal court-watchers.

We don’t know how seriously to take Justice Ginsburg’s claim that Justice John Paul Stevens, who served until he was 90, is her “new model.” No one wants to be a lame duck and Ginsburg also might not want to admit that political considerations would guide her retirement decision, although she has hinted as much before and legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin, who also recently interviewed the Justice, said that “she would like to retire while a Democrat is in the White House.”

Right now this is a concern for liberals (as should be the continued tenure of 75 year-old Justice Breyer, given the shorter lifespan of men compared to women), but the shoe has been on the other foot often enough. By refusing to step down before the very close 2004 election despite his own advanced age and, eventually, terminal illness, Chief Justice Rehnquist, who died at 80 in 2005 without retiring,despite missing many oral arguments, ran the risk of having his successor be named by the President Kerry who nearly was.

The broader point is that the whims of one unaccountable person, whatever their age, abilities or ideology should NOT matter so much in a democracy. Term limits for the Supreme Court would address the much discussed possibility of strategic retirement, in which a Justice chooses to leave the bench at a time when there is a President likely to appoint a replacement with similar views, reduce the variation in the number of appointments each President gets, reduce the likelihood of Justices serving into their dotage and keep the Court from becoming too out of touch with society. This is an issue that I have addressed in the past, without reaching consensus, but it is again timely.

Such a reform could be structured in various ways, but if, for example, Justices knew that if they retired during the term of a President with similar views he or she would only be able to appoint someone to serve out the remainder of their term, their incentive to retire strategically would disappear. At the same time the term limit would keep Justices from staying on the Court beyond the time when they could serve effectively, as Justice Thurgood Marshall and others did, in hopes of waiting out a Chief Executive they disliked.

Life tenure for a Supreme Court is an anomaly among democratic political systems at home and abroad. Other democratic countries with judiciaries ranked as equally independent as the American courts and 49 out of the 50 American states do not use life tenure. (Rhode Island is the exception.) Some nations and states have mandatory retirement, others have fixed terms. Some have both. (In some states a judge can serve for an indefinite period at any age, but is subject to periodic reappointment or re-election.) When this system was instituted in the late 18th century Alexander Hamilton argued that there were very few men qualified to serve and that they would be unwilling to give up their lucrative law practices without the prospect of life tenure. Does anyone believe that is still true?

A mandatory retirement age would be an improvement on the status quo, but would still encourage Presidents to nominate young Justices, to maximize their long-term impact ,e.g. Clarence Thomas. An 18 year term would greatly reduce that incentive. Our system is backward. We limit the terms of the elected President, but not those of the unelected Judges.

There was a flurry of interest in this idea circa 2005 among law professors before Justice O’Connor retired because there had been so little turnover on the Court for so long. I wrote an essay in this 2013 volume aimed at undergrads edited by Richard Ellis and Michael Nelson.

George III stayed on his throne for life, although he was unable to really rule due his insanity in later years. By contrast, this year we’ve already seen two monarchs who exercise less power than he did choose to abdicate at the ages of 75 and 80, respectively. Some Justices, including Scalia and Ginsburg, have children who are attorneys. Maybe they would retire if they, like Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands or Albert, King of the Belgians, knew their children would inherit their positions? Or maybe we as a country could revisit an 18th century political arrangement that has outlived whatever usefulness it may have once had.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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David Karol is an associate professor of American politics at the University of Maryland.
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Comments

  • Northzax on July 07, 2013 11:44 AM:

    Technically three. Beatrix, Albert and of course Benedict.

  • Garry on July 08, 2013 8:44 AM:

    A nine year term for the Supreme Court. That would be a turnover of one a year. At the end of their term, they could choose one of the following:
    Return to private practice, teach, or stay as District Court judge where ever they want, for a 15 year term or, ask the Senate to confirm them to a vacant Appellate seat for a 15 year term.