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On Supreme Court Justices: Unlimited Term-Length and Unreviewable Power in American Government

The buck stops at their bench. Free from the pressures of political retribution and public opinion, these unelected officials preside over the most powerful nation in the world guiding the social anatomy and cultural zeitgeist with their own constitutional interpretations. Supreme Court Justices are highly regarded and respected around the world for their prestigious positions, and within the scope of American politics their job comes with perks that would be considered absurd if applied to any other job in government.

supreme courtRecently, Justice Antonin Scalia died on a ranch in Texas, leaving a gaping hole in the 8-member Supreme Court during the last several months of Obama’s Presidency. A tragic loss, which has stirred Washington into a chaotic agitation. With Scalia’s death, Obama is faced with the opportunity of appointing someone to the fill the gap. This is a powerful circumstance for the President, because choosing a Supreme Court Justice has lasting effects on the political orientation of the nation.

Perhaps the three most patent features of holding a position on the Supreme Court:

So by American political standards, their jobs are distinctly secure and influential compared to presidents, senators, congressmen, and governors who are limited by power and term – but why?

Act III of the constitution established the judicial branch of government, and specifies that members of the Supreme Court shall “hold their office during good behavior” … a somewhat vague description of tenure. This statement, which has been regarded as “the most mysterious provision in the Constitution,” has been interpreted to mean that judges should rule free and independent of the changing or fickle minds of the public and of their rulers. In other words, Supreme Court Justices need to make decisions without worrying about public or professional backlash for controversial rulings. On the website, the role of the life-tenure is justified to “ensure that the changing views of a majority do not undermine the fundamental values common to all Americans.”

This seems logical on the surface, but has some very serious drawbacks. Because justices are appointed for life (and usually stay out their tenure), their political tendencies will affect court decisions for decades to come. Sixteen years is the average Supreme Court Justice term. And these government officials are dealing with cases that guide the political, and thereby social trajectory of America. Supreme court decisions are referenced endlessly in judicial hearings across the US, and literally define what is constitutionally just. Every case that passes across their desk functions to shape the present and guide the future of our national sense of right and wrong. And because it is virtually impossible to remove them from office, they act without any trepidation.

So, the question emerges: Should any political position with unreviewable power be unlimited in term length?

Probably not. History has taught us that unchallengeable political precedence usually doesn’t end well for the people. Granted, so far in American history Supreme Court Justices haven’t abused their faculty to politically orient the nation. But this threat isn’t the only issue – social change is a constant, never-ending evolutionary process, and someone who has been sitting on the bench for fifteen years might not understand the current social climate enough to truly reflect the people’s values in his/her supreme decision-making. It might serve the people better to have a higher rate of turnover amongst these justices to keep up with new cultural ideas and generational shifts.

Unfortunately, changing the parameters of the position of Supreme Court Justice would be no easy task. First of all, these judges don’t want to lose their incredible job security and benefits: Not only are they guaranteed a job for the rest of their lives, but associate justices also receive a healthy compensation of $214,000 a year (the chief justice’s salary is somewhere closer to the $250,000 mark); a figure that can never be decreased, only adjusted upwards. On top of this, they get excellent healthcare and three months of paid vacation every year. Justices receive international respect and recognition and usually spend their free time on elaborate vacations in luxury destinations. Justice Scalia passed away on a hunting ranch that runs around $700 per night, and that level of opulent out-of-office activity wasn’t uncommon for him and certainly isn’t uncommon for other justices. They will fight to maintain their life-long seats on the Supreme Court because it is extremely comfortable up there.

Besides the unwillingness of Supreme Court Justices to give up their tenure, amending the constitution to create retirement parameters or term-lengths would be not only time-consuming, but almost impossible. Should the American people have more say in whom becomes a judge? Should the sitting President have more power to check the judicial appointment system? And even if we were able to craft new parameters for justices, and if some kind of amendment actually emerged from congress to address some of these problems, could it realistically get three-fourths of state legislatures to approve its inclusion in the constitution?

Whether President Obama decides to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s position remains to be seen. But no matter what happens, Scalia’s death opens the door for redirection of America’s political and social evolution. And with no legislation to amend the rules for Supreme Court Justices on any horizon, whoever fills his absence will probably be there for a very long time. All that we, the people can do is hope Scalia’s successor will accurately embody our values and help shepherd America towards a better future.


Will Brendza
Will Brendza is a freelance journalist and aimless adventurer based out of the Rocky Mountains, a fearless student of science and a keen outdoorsman. After having witnessed firsthand the environmental abominations taking place both abroad and at home in the US, he resolved to spread the knowledge and drive for global sustainability. When he isn't writing or reading a good book, he can usually be found exploring foreign countries, savoring craft breweries or somewhere deep within the wilderness of Colorado."

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