Perverse politics found in the Supreme Court

Russ Caditz-Peck

Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, a conformist greek or a lonely indie, a Pio purist or a Seccession insurgent, one issue should unite us all: a Supreme Court term limit.

Last week Justice David Souter unexpectedly announced plans to retire at the ripe young age of 69. What’s the buzz about his replacement? A morbid discussion of life expectancy and actuarial tables.

The Supreme Court is too important to be shaped by such perverse and arbitrary factors. Congress should pass an amendment to create a term limit of 20 years, followed by retirement.

President Obama’s criteria to select a new justice should be merit and experience alone. Without a term limit, his decision will be largely based upon the candidate’s ability to … survive.

Justices are now living: and serving: longer average terms than ever before. Between 1995 and 2005 there were no new justices appointed: the longest period in American history.

The politics of justice retirement is similarly perverse and harmful to democracy. Justice Souter undoubtedly hoped to retire earlier: he called Washington the “world’s worst city” and referred to his service as an “annual intellectual lobotomy.”

However, Souter did not want to be replaced by a conservative Bush appointee. Our political system forced him to be strategic in his retirement: to make a political choice: to wait out President Bush.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in “The Federalist Papers” that lifelong appointments would insulate the courts from political pressure. Yet as Souter’s case makes clear, justices’ self-selection of retirement makes the Court’s makeup a political affair.

If our political system was allowed to prepare for scheduled vacancies, this infusion of politics into Court would cease to exist. Elderly justices would no longer wait to retire during a presidency they liked. Instead, the Court would experience a stable influx of highly qualified voices from across the political spectrum.

In Hamilton’s time, shorter life expectancy naturally caused more frequent turnover. A 20-year term limit would maintain, not alter, the institution Hamilton imagined.

Age matters. Older justices with poor health and energy rely heavily on clerks to research and write opinions.

Furthermore, I believe it is harmful to democracy that certain presidents appoint many justices, while some appoint none. Every president should have an equal affect on the Court. The health of each justice, and their choice of when to retire, is too arbitrary to shape our Supreme Court.

Both John Paul Stevens, 89-years-old, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 76, are anticipated to retire before Obama’s re-election. If President Obama wins a second term, he may select five new Supreme Court justices during his presidency: over half the Court.
Supreme Court term limits are by no means a new idea: term limits have been discussed for decades by those across the political spectrum. They have been accepted internationally: Canada’s Supreme Court now has a mandatory age of retirement set at 75.

While it’s unreasonable to expect President Obama to surrender his current privileges, a Supreme Court term limit is viable. I urge you to support an amendment passed as soon as possible to take effect in 2017, by which point it is anyone’s guess who will hold the presidency.