We are in one of the most divisive periods in modern American history. When it comes to the most pressing issues facing our country, the public is divided along party lines and important conversations often devolve into animosity and confrontation.
Unfortunately, the most powerful court in the nation — the United States Supreme Court — is far from immune to these overtly political forces. The Supreme Court confirmation process has become a political circus and at the end of the day, the American public is feeling the consequences. The nine justices are polarized along partisan lines, exacerbating public divisions and running counter to the constitutional principle of an independent judiciary.
Since 2015, Fix the Court – a non-partisan, non-profit organization – has worked to introduce greater openness and accountability into the Supreme Court. The organization sees term limits as one of several commonsense yet critical “fixes” that can lead to a stronger, more independent and more transparent third branch.
After extensive analysis of the judiciary, an 18-year term limit has emerged as the reform most critical to fixing the issues plaguing our highest court. It’s a realistic, compromise solution in a time when so few true compromises feel attainable. At the end of the day, this is about strengthening the highest court in the U.S. and achieving a more perfect union.
- When our founding fathers gave Supreme Court justices life tenure on the bench, the goal was to shield those serving on the court from the political pressures of the day. Today, however, we have seen the court become more political than ever before.
- The justices wield an enormous amount of power, and with lifelong appointments, they are free to push their personal politics in irreversible ways that affect the everyday lives of millions of Americans. From health care to religious liberties to gun rights to business regulations, the most divisive issues facing our nation were once decided with frequent unanimity. Today, the percentage of one-vote margin decisions is at an all-time high.
- Life tenure has failed American democracy. Instead of serving reasonable terms of a decade or even two, justices are holding onto seats for 30 or 35 years, waiting for a president who shares their ideology. Additionally, a Senate majority is incentivized to hold a vacant seat open for as long as it can if the current president happens to be in the opposite party.
- As we saw most recently through Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, confirmation hearings have become a national embarrassment for both parties, largely driven by political agendas and the winner-takes-all incentive structure inherent to lifetime appointments. None of these circumstances were envisioned by our country’s founders. Modern times call for a more modern court.
- We can move toward a truly independent Supreme Court through legislation that limits justices to an 18-year term on the highest court. Limiting Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms would solve two key problems that have led to the extreme partisanship and harmful polarization we see on the court today:
- Supreme Court justices now serve longer on average than at any point in American history. When the Constitution was written, life expectancy was much lower than it is today. Life tenure gives justices the perverse incentive to stay on the court until a President with whom they tend to agree is in the Oval Office – meaning some justices keep their seat until the “right” person is elected to the White House.
- In Supreme Court nominations, it’s currently not a priority to find the best candidate for the job – a candidate who will serve with integrity and who has ample life experience. Instead, the party in charge scrambles to find the youngest, often most ideological nominee (who, at the same time, knows to say the right things at a confirmation hearing) in order to control the seat for decades to come.
- Every democracy created in the last 100 years has placed a term limit or a mandatory retirement age on its top judges, and nearly every U.S. state judiciary, from blue California to red Alabama, does as well.
- A single, standard 18-year term at the high court would encourage restraint in the most powerful, least accountable branch of American government, increase the rotation of justices serving and broaden the pool of potential nominees to include older individuals with more and varied life experience – outcomes that would have a positive impact across the political spectrum.