A court reform craze is sweeping American politics. Fix the Court has fought to improve transparency and accountability at the Supreme Court since 2015. Rather than the political lightning rod that is court packing, FTC supports an 18-year term limit for Supreme Court justices. Here are the latest updates from FTC and court reform discussions around the country.
Senator Kamala Harris talks term limits
Kamala Harris (who, among other titles, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee) made news last week when she expressed openness open to Supreme Court reform, including term limits and/or a rotational model for justices.
“I am interested in having that conversation,” she said, citing the public’s growing “crisis of confidence” when it comes to the Supreme Court.
Documenting the problem
Supreme Revenge, a documentary released on Frontline this week, details Justice Kavanaugh’s “intensely and instantly partisan” nomination process. The documentary highlights what Fix the Court has been long arguing: that the confirmation process – and by extension, the court – is undeniably and unfortunately partisan. The problem predates Kavanaugh. It’s apparent in the histories of Justice Thomas, Justice Fortas, Justice Brandeis, the ill-fated nomination of Judge Bork, and beyond.
Establishing predictable, reasonable terms for future justices would prevent every vacancy from being a high-stakes apocalypse and would lower temperatures in the committee room and the Chief Justice’s conference room, as well.
Court reform heats up with term limits as an antidote to overly partisan alternatives
2019 has seen court reform proposals grab headlines and spark an unprecedented national debate around the merits of various structural changes to the nation’s highest court.
One reform proposal in particular – to add to the number of justices on the court – has become fodder for partisans. 2020 Democratic candidates have expressed interest in the idea of packing the court, while conservatives in government and media have widely condemned it. Plus, just weeks after sitting Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said he would be open to term limits on the court, former SCOTUS Justice John Paul Stevens said he would not support any proposal to pack the court.
Meanwhile, term limits sees broad bipartisan support. In fact, perhaps the only thing both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee can agree on is their openness to discussing the possibility of introducing SCOTUS term limits. Senator Harris joins a growing list of Committee members that have expressed an openness to discussing court reform proposals, such as term limits, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, Louisiana Senator John Kennedy and Delaware Senator Chris Coons.
Longer lifespans = longer terms
Americans live significantly longer than they did in the 18th century when the framers considered how long a federal judge might serve. Thankfully, this trend shows no sign of reversing itself, but it does mean that a new approach is warranted. In a recent interview with ReasonTV (video), George Mason University Law Professor Ilya Somin explains the inevitability of term limits given that Americans are living longer and tenures of 50 or 60 years on the Supreme Court are untenable.
SCOTUS temperature rising
Temperatures are rising on the Supreme Court as justices spar over precedent and stark differences on death penalty and abortion cases, foreshadowing potential fights to come.
As Michael Tomasky wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times last year, Chief Justices have historically sought to avoid 5-4 rulings because they wanted Americans to see the court as unified on the most divisive issues. With a spate of major decisions on the horizon, however, 2019 is unlikely to see much unity among the justices.
As you might’ve guessed, term limits would help fix that.