On Limiting the Tenure of Supreme Court Justices

James Fallows recently advocated term limits for justices. This presents a nice opportunity to review some political science on this subject, in particular Justin Crowe and Chris Karpowitz’s article, “Where Have You Gone, Sherman Minton? The Decline of the Short-Term Supreme Court Justice” (gated; ungated).

Crowe and Karpowitz make several important empirical points:

First, any changes in the tenure of justices over time is not due to an increase in the number of justices serving long terms. There have always been those justices on the Court. Instead, there has been a decrease in the number of short-term justices, as the title of the article suggests. This is what a measure like “average tenure” conceals. Crowe and Karpowitz write:

Our analysis suggests that mean tenure on the Court in any given period is substantially influenced by the presence or absence of the short-term justice. The long-term justice has always been—and will likely continue to be—a feature of our constitutional system. The short-term justice has been a consistent presence in every period except the most recent. When we take this development into account, we see that using measures of central tendency as evidence of an inexorable upward trend obscures the full picture. To be sure, we are currently at a historical peak in average service, though we should be careful not to over-interpret this statement about patterns of Court service. But for the absence of the short-term justice, all other trends are similar to other periods in American history

Second, justices tend to serve short terms because of illness and death in many cases but, in others, because of higher ambition (John Jay), dissatisfaction with the job (Jay again, also Minton), and occasionally scandal (Fortas).

Third, and consequently, the disappearance of the short-term justice is not just a function of better medical treatments and longer lifespans. (There were plenty of people living long lives and serving long terms on the Court, even in the early years of the United States.) It is also a function of this simple fact: serving on the Court is a much better job these days. Consider these changes, all quotes from Crowe and Karpowitz:

  • …structural changes in the justices’ working conditions, such as the elimination of circuit-riding and the expansion of support staff (secretaries, marshals, and law clerks), as well as more favorable retirement provisions.
  • …while the Court’s workload has decreased, the significant expansion of certiorari jurisdiction has meant that the justices’ control over it has increased, thereby allowing the Court to focus its attention on constitutional issues of broad national significance…the justices have assumed an increasingly prominent and meaningful role in core aspects of American political life.
  • To the extent that these issues are controversial among the public and politicians alike, they are no less so among the justices. As a result, on a closely divided and ideologically polarized Court, one vote can mean the difference between upholding and striking down laws that implicate foundational constitutional and democratic values.

Simply put, justices have more power and prestige than they used to. No wonder few want to leave the bench quickly.

But is this really a problem? Crowe and Karpowitz find it hard to muster an easy case for term limits. On the one hand, more frequent rotation through the Court could make it more accountable—i.e., closer to the public. On the other hand, this presumes that the Court should hew toward the majority’s will, and that is a problematic criterion. And, in any case, the Court is often sensitive to public opinion, even when composed of long-serving justices.

Other advocates of term limits argue that they would reduce the divisive politics of Court appointments. This is the motivation for Fallows’ post. Crowe and Karpowitz are skeptical, and I tend to agree. I doubt that presidents, Senators, interest groups, and others would suddenly stop caring as much if justices served only 6 or 8 or 12 years. A lot of the divisiveness stems from party polarization in Congress, which is not likely to go away anytime soon. Under term limits, I would foresee an increasing number of equally divisive Court battles. Indeed, they might become even more divisive because leaders would know exactly when vacancies would arise, making them even more a dominant consideration in campaigns.

The last argument is that the Court would benefit from youthful vigor. Advocates of this argument also point to the decline in mental acuity that some older justices have faced. Crowe and Karpowitz note, however, that if acuity is the criterion, then term limits are a not an ideal solution, since mental decline could strike even at a younger age. Coming up with an acuity test for justices would be challenging, to say the least.

Moreover, there are potential advantages when justices stay on the Court for a longer time: expertise, camaraderie, etc. Crowe and Karpowitz point out that, historically, short-term justices have been more notable for their “boredom and frustration” than their vitality, which perhaps explains why they have been a “fairly undistinguished lot.”

In short, whatever problems people have with the Supreme Court, it’s unlikely that term limits will solve them.

2 Responses to On Limiting the Tenure of Supreme Court Justices

  1. Wonks Anonymous August 10, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    Craig Lerner & Nelson Lund have some suggestions for taking down those long-serving justices a peg or two:
    http://volokh.com/author/craigandnelson/

  2. chris August 11, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    There’s another argument for term limits that you didn’t address: a life term creates an incentive to appoint young justices, since they will probably serve longer. Why appoint someone who will represent your ideology for 20 years when you can appoint someone who will represent your ideology for 40 years?

    The decreasing number of people leaving the court prematurely only strengthens this case.