On the same day that former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold was named president of the American Constitution Society, he expressed an openness, at least in his personal capacity, toward the idea of Supreme Court term limits.
“Let’s face it. The founders did not really anticipate that a 35-year-old person would be nominated for a federal lifetime appointment to the bench and have a life expectancy of 100 years,” he told the New York Times.
Days later, on Dahlia Lithwick’s “Amicus” podcast, Feingold reiterated a personal interest in, and an organizational openness toward, term limits. While making clear that ACS does not and will not take institutional positions on such issues, Feingold did say that ACS will seek to be a leader in fostering discussion around these topics.
He added that the founders never envisioned judges and justices routinely serving in those posts for 50 or 60 years and that something is fundamentally wrong when we have to worry about the health of elderly justices to stave off wild shifts in jurisprudence.
Feingold’s point about the lack of foreseeability of limitless tenures for judges and justices is well-taken. According to Stuart Taylor, writing in The Atlantic in 2005, the first 10 justices to the Supreme Court served for under eight years, on average, and three of them left to take other positions. Further, Taylor found that, “[t]he 90 justices who had completed their terms by 1970 retired (on average) after 15 years on the bench, at age 68.”
The fact that until recently judges and justices served limited tenures, despite having the opportunity for longer service, strengthens the case that what was unforeseeable to the founding fathers were the interminable tenures themselves. These elongated terms have been the natural outgrowth of the expanded role that the Supreme Court has taken on in recent years; those appointed have chosen to hold on longer and those doing the appointing have skewed toward nominees who could serve longer.
Another way to conceptualize just how different the position has become today is to consider how unimaginable it would be that a Supreme Court justice would step away to take a different job.
The job of Supreme Court justice has evolved, and it’s important we modernize along with it, lest the court’s role in our democracy continue to expand until it becomes unrecognizable.
An 18-year term limit would, in fact, bring us closer to the founding father’s original vision than the 30-plus year tenures that have only recently become a new normal at the Supreme Court.