Under the Constitution, US Supreme Court justices are appointed to the court for life. The Court is comprised of the Chief Justice of the US and eight Associate Justices. The Chief Justice is the highest judicial official in the federal government and acts as judge in presidential impeachments. In recent years, there have been calls to change the lifetime appointments to the Court to a fixed term of years.
Article III, section 1 of the US Constitution vests the judicial power of the US in one Supreme Court and any inferior federal courts established by Congress. The judges of both the supreme and inferior courts hold their offices “for good Behavior.” The term for Supreme Court justices ends only upon death, resignation, retirement, or impeachment. Associate Justices are appointed by the President and confirmed with the “advice and consent” of the US Senate.
Supreme Court decisions are the final law of the land. The Court’s rulings can affect the powers of the other branches of the federal government and state governments as well. The life term for Supreme Court justices was intended to shield them from outside political influences of any kind.
Many legal scholars and commentators have begun to call for changing the life term for Supreme Court justices to some fixed term of years. They argue that life tenure meant something very different in 18th century America. Because of advances in medicine and health care, justices are serving much longer terms than the Framers of the Constitution would have anticipated. There are also democratic and practical considerations in favor of limited terms.
With a life term for Supreme Court justices, there is always the possibility that they will serve longer than they otherwise might, in order to maintain the status quo in approaches to highly charged political-legal issues, like abortion for instance. It is also argued that life tenure adversely affects the democratic process by lessening the opportunities for new presidential appointments. Because presidential terms are limited, one president may make multiple appointments to the Court, another may have no appointments.
Other proponents of fixed terms for justices argue that “during good Behavior” does take into account issues like physical or mental infirmity and other consequences of advancing age. The Supreme Court is empowered to regulate its caseload, and can simply accept fewer cases for decision. There is also the possibility of members of the Court becoming intellectually stagnant or failing to respond to political and cultural changes in the country.
Supporters of life term for Supreme Court justices argue that it is in the Constitution precisely so the justices do not have to decide cases based on political passions or expectations of the day. Life tenure also gives the Court a chance to see and consider fundamental changes occurring in society and to rethink past decisions. They also argue that life tenure would require an unnecessary constitutional amendment. Fixed terms could also create the possibility of the terms being made shorter and shorter, enabling lawmakers to more quickly replace justices for political ends.