The current battle over Supreme Court appointments reveals more than just partisan bickering. It spotlights basic flaws in the US judicial system. Among the most obvious questions is the lifelong tenure granted to Supreme Court justices. Roberts, for example, may run the court through the terms of the next 10 presidents.

An excellent article by Ronald Brownstein in the LA Times reports that a growing coalition from the left and right is questioning whether lifetime appointments still serve the purposes intended by the founders:

Justices today, on average, remain on the high court longer and retire at a more advanced age than ever before. Supreme Court justices now routinely serve a quarter-century or more. No justice has retired at an age younger than 75 since 1981 (when Potter Stewart stepped down at 66).

The Soviet Politburo probably turned over faster.

Which is why an informal band of prominent legal thinkers from left and right is challenging the Constitution’s grant of lifetime tenure to Supreme Court justices. With life spans lengthening, and the court’s members clinging so tenaciously to their robes, these critics want to limit justices to a single fixed term, usually set at 18 years.

So far, no prominent politician has joined them. But the idea seems destined to generate more discussion as frustration in both parties mounts over the process of selecting and confirming Supreme Court nominees.

As we’ve seen with the agonies over current and recent SC nomination and confirmation, the stakes have become too high. Instead of the “above-the-fray” collection of wise people intended, the court has become the primary fuel for extreme partisan rhetoric and maneuvering by every portion of the political spectrum. The current system not only doesn’t work, but works against exactly what it was intended to do.

If I had a vote, it would be for 12-year terms with one renewal if approved by a 3/4 vote in Congress and presidential assent. I don’t generally believe in the myth of political “moderation”, but the courts are the one place where nonpartisan neutrality is essential. Giving one president the power to shape the country for 40 years after leaving office, even if s/he’s impeached or driven from office in disgrace, seems a ridiculous way to run a country.

Term limits for justices (in conformance with almost all other democracies and almost every US state) would be one small step toward the radical reform our court system needs in order to deal with demands that go so far beyond the 18th-century patrician perspective of the founders.

I think it has become necessary to take the power of appointment away from the president and give it to a supermajority of Congress, but that’s a whole nother can of worms that would take a Constitutional Convention to straighten out.

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