Helton: 3 reasons the Supreme Court needs term limits

20 years on the highest court would be more efficient and better suited for today’s judicial branch.



Chris Ware color caricature montage of all nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices (from top, then left, John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotamayor, Elena Kagan). MCT 2011

Elijah Helton, Opinion Columnist

“Don’t die.”

That’s what many view as the No. 1 goal for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

While recent Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh prepares for his Senate hearing, those who prefer a liberal-leaning court are understandably concerned about Ginsburg’s future service.

At 85 years old, she is the oldest justice on the highest court in the land. Regardless of the ideology of the justices, it’s bizarre that the future of one side so heavily relies on one woman simply not dying until there’s a Democrat back in the White House. There has to be a better way.

The Supreme Court justices need term limits. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use 20 years as the proposed cap on our country’s most influential justice officials.

Basically with untimed power comes irresponsibility

Lifetime appointments don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

The supposed reason to give justices lifetime appointments in the first place is to isolate them from external political influence. There’s a big problem with this reasoning, though: Federal judges don’t need to worry about the public because they aren’t elected officials.

Unlike the state-level justices we have in Iowa, there is no way for a federal justice to be voted out of office. Every member of the Supreme Court has been appointed without having to be on a ballot, and that doesn’t change whether it’s a 20-year term or a lifelong one.

As nice as it is to think the Supreme Court is nonpartisan and clean of the swampiness of Washington, that’s simply not the case. Thomas Jefferson worried about this nearly two centuries ago. He argued, “As [Supreme Court justices] are in office for life, and not responsible, as other functionaries are, to elective control … with the corruptions of time and party, its members would become despots.” Basically, with untimed power comes irresponsibility.

Regular judicial turnover would further negate outside political influence.

OK, so you might be thinking that 20 years is still an exceptionally long stint. While two decades is plenty of time to leave one’s mark, over time, the term limit solves several problems today’s nomination process has.

First of all, there would be scheduled replacements on the court. Ginsburg wouldn’t painstakingly hold out for a Democratic president, and the opposite goes for the predicament that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas will have in about a decade. With an empty spot coming about every two years, all presidents would get their chances. (Unlike President Jimmy Carter, who had zero high-court picks during his four-year administration.)

Additionally, there wouldn’t be instances of the Senate simply refusing to vote on replacement confirmations. Instead, everyone will know that a judge’s term is ending well in advance, and the president could have a nominee ready to go, filling the empty seat on the bench with as little delay as possible.

Limited time would be an incentive for more experienced nominees and fairer court.

Ginsburg was 60 years old when she was confirmed to the court, but she’s the outlier when it comes to starting ages for her fellow justices. The average starting age of all others on the court is just 51.

This is because presidents want to make as long-lasting an effect as possible, so they try to pick a nominee on the younger side. We know highly regarded legal minds can serve well past 70 and even 80. If we instituted term limits, the prioritization of relative youth can be replaced by an extra decade of wisdom and experience.

With regularly scheduled retirements, the Supreme Court will be more efficient and stable, and the entire country wouldn’t hinge on whether or not The Notorious R.B.G. lives through 2020.