MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve For Life?

While most political officials serve for a defined period of time, U.S. Supreme Court Justices serve for life (which can span more than 3 decades nowadays). Potentially, justices appointed in the 21st century could sit on the Supreme Court for an average total of 35 years, thanks to longer lifespans, as compared to the average span of around 16 years in the past. Because of this shift, some experts question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, since the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the Constitution was written. But, why do justices serve for life, anyway?

The Constitution doesn’t really specify a time frame, per se, stating only that judges “hold their offices during good behavior.” So, while a judge could be removed for “bad behavior”, no other limits are placed on their term. In essence, they have their seat for life, unless they’re impeached & removed by Congress.

The point of justices being given a seat on the bench for life (or, more commonly these days, until they retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from partisan infighting. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of the President & Congress. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that justices are insulated from political pressure so the court can be a truly independent branch of government. Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, so they can focus on the law instead of politics. And, while a justice might be nominated because a president sees them as a political ally, once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts.

Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages or term limits for high court judges. But, while the U.S. Supreme Court has never had them, recent serious proposals have attempted to implement them. One popular suggestion among political analysts & scholars is to implement an 18-year term limit. Critics of that particular plan, however, point out its potential to, at some point, enable a single president to end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court. In any case, any change would require a constitutional amendment, meaning it’s probably not gonna happen anytime soon. So, for the foreseeable future, being a Supreme Court justice continues to be a lifetime commitment.

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