The Power of a Lifetime Appointment: Why Supreme Court Justices Are Appointed for Life

The Power of a Lifetime Appointment: Why Supreme Court Justices Are Appointed for Life

Some say it's a life sentence for America
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The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest level of the federal judiciary, and it is one of the most influential institutions in the country. It is the final arbitrator on interpreting laws and the Constitution. What sets the federal judiciary apart from the other branches of the government is the lifetime appointment of its judges … including the holy grail of the United States Supreme Court justice.

While this practice has been a subject of debate, there are compelling reasons behind it that make it a great aspect of our democracy. Serving for life allows justices to make decisions without fear of political repercussions or the need to seek reappointment. This independence enables them to interpret the law impartially, ensuring the preservation of justice and the integrity of the court.

Why Supreme Court justices are appointed for life has been recently called into question especially with the highly charged, politicized decisions that have come out of the last few terms.

Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

Understanding the Reasons Behind Supreme Court Justices Serving for Life

“This is the most important position that a president can give out–I think we can say–by far. I’ve actually heard it’s the most important decision a president can make.”

– President Trump at a news conference in September 2018.

The History of Lifetime Appointments

The idea of lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices dates back to the Constitution’s founding in 1787. The Framers of the Constitution–unanimously–believed that lifetime appointments would prevent political pressure and ensure the independence of the judiciary. The Constitution states that judges, including Supreme Court justices, shall hold their offices during good behavior, which is understood to mean for life (and for good behavior).

Basically, if you don’t need to worry about re-election, then you don’t need to worry about making decisions that would appease the public. Lifetime appointments were seen as a way to insulate the judiciary from the whims of the majority.

The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution. By a limited Constitution, I understand one which contains certain specified exceptions to the legislative authority. . . Limitations of this kind can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing.

– Alexander Hamilton in the “The Judiciary Department” in Federalist No. 78.

The first Supreme Court, established in 1789, consisted of six justices, who were appointed by President George Washington. The number of justices has since fluctuated, with the current number being nine since 1869. Throughout its history, the Supreme Court has played a crucial role in shaping the country’s legal and political landscape, such as Roe v. Wade and Dobbs v. Jackson.

The group consisted of a Chief Justice (Roger B. Taney), who, for a period, became the most despised individual in America and a justice (John Rutledge), who, despite receiving confirmation from the Senate, had no desire to serve.

On the Chief Justice Taney: He became notorious for his role in the landmark Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, where he authored the majority opinion that declared African Americans, whether enslaved or free, as not being able to claim citizenship under the U.S. Constitution. This decision further exacerbated tensions over slavery and contributed to the growing divide between the North and the South, ultimately leading to the American Civil War. Taney’s name became synonymous with injustice and his reputation remained tarnished for many years after his death.

On John Rutledge: Rutledge stepped down from the Supreme Court after a year in 1791 to assume the role of Chief Justice in South Carolina’s highest court. He came back after President George Washington selected Rutledge as Chief Justice of the United States on July 1, 1795, making him a recess appointee. Unfortunately, his nomination was ultimately rejected by the Senate on December 15, 1795.

Controversies Surrounding Lifetime Appointments

While lifetime appointments were intended to ensure the judiciary’s independence, they have also been the subject of controversy. Critics argue that lifetime appointments lead to a lack of accountability and can result in judges becoming out of touch with the people they serve. Additionally, some argue that lifetime appointments can result in judges becoming more politically partisan and less concerned with upholding the Constitution.

Why Supreme Court justices are appointed for life has been recently called into question especially with the highly charged, politicized decisions that have come out of the last few terms.
Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

For example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been criticized for his conservative views, for rarely speaking during oral arguments, and for his murky ethics. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the other hand, has been praised for her progressive views and for being a vocal advocate for women’s rights. Some argue that these differences in judicial philosophy are a result of the lifetime appointment system, which allows justices to serve for decades without facing the consequences of their decisions.

We have seen President Trump appoint three conservative judges during his term, which swayed the Court radically to the right. Unfortunately, this means that the highest court in the land will now be conservative for many years, which some could argue is against the philosophy of having nine justices serve.

Additionally, lifetime appointments can lead to a lack of diversity on the court. Because justices serve for decades, it can be difficult to ensure that the court reflects the diversity of American society. For example, the Supreme Court did not have a female justice until 1981, when Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. And, yes, I’m still waiting for an Asian person to serve as a justice.

One other issue is that a lifetime appointment really does mean a lifetime appointment. But what happens when a justice suffers from, say, dementia? There are no rules in place to remove a justice when this happens.

Lastly (but not least), justices with lifetime appointments can be … old. That means they may or may not be out of touch with the “common people,” whose average age would be well below the average age of a justice.

Book Look

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the audio format) includes archival original recordings of Justice Ginsburg’s speeches and bench announcements.

Alternatives to Lifetime Appointments

There have been several proposals to reform the Supreme Court’s appointment process, including term limits and mandatory retirement ages. Some argue that term limits would ensure that the court remains fresh and responsive to changing social and political conditions. Others argue that mandatory retirement ages would prevent justices from serving beyond their capacity and becoming out of touch with society.

However, these proposals have yet to gain widespread support. Term limits, in particular, have been criticized for potentially politicizing the appointment process even further. Additionally, mandatory retirement ages could be seen as age discrimination and could prevent qualified candidates from serving on the court.

The Impact of Lifetime Appointments on the Supreme Court’s Decisions

Lifetime appointments have undoubtedly had an impact on the Supreme Court’s decisions throughout its history. Because justices serve for life, they are able to shape legal and political policy for decades. For example, Justice John Marshall, who served on the court from 1801 to 1835, established the principle of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, which has had a profound impact on American democracy. Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in schools, paving the way for racial equality (although we still have a long way to go).

Recent Developments and Debates on Lifetime Appointments

In recent years, there has been renewed debate over the Supreme Court’s lifetime appointment system. This is due in part to the increasing political polarization in the country and the perception that the court has become more politicized in recent years. Additionally, the recent deaths of Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have highlighted the importance of Supreme Court appointments and the potential impact of lifetime appointments on the court’s decisions.

Some have called for reforms to the appointment process, such as term limits or mandatory retirement ages. Others argue that lifetime appointments are a necessary part of the judiciary’s independence and that any attempt to change the system would be a threat to the Constitution.

Who Are the Current Supreme Court Justices?

  • John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the United States
  • Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice
  • Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Associate Justice
  • Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice
  • Elena Kagan, Associate Justice
  • Neil M. Gorsuch, Associate Justice
  • Brett M. Kavanaugh, Associate Justice
  • Amy Coney Barrett, Associate Justice
  • Ketanji Brown Jackson, Associate Justice

My Opinion: Why Supreme Court Justices Are Appointed for Life

Lifetime appointments aren’t going to go away any time soon. However, I would like to see the maximum age for justices implemented.


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