An 18-Year Plan for the Supreme Court

In response to this item yesterday, about the distortions caused by lifetime Supreme Court appointments in the era of longevity, reader Jim Strickler has a specific plan:

How about 18-year terms with no reappointment? Terms could be staggered so the Court would have one new Justice every two years. Each president would get two appointments per presidential term.

I can see complications, mainly involving a death or resignation of a sitting Justice. (Who gets the "extra" appointment? How long does it run? If it's only for a partial term, could that person be reappointed? Etc.) And of course it's not going to happen. But as a logic experiment it makes good sense, and highlights the illogic of the way the process works now.

After the jump, some reader complaints about the idea of limited terms at all.

One line of objection to limited-term appointments:

I'm not defending life tenure for justices, necessarily, but it is important to note that it saves us from judges leaving the bench to become lobbyists or counsel in private industry. Surely this would be as corrupting for the judiciary as it is for the other branches of government. If a federal judgeship is the last job you ever expect to have, it cuts down on your careerism and potential conflicts of interest.

One example of how this might work is former judge Michael Luttig, who caused a stir by quitting the bench to go work for Boeing.

My solution to that problem: lifetime full pay for retired Justices, just not a lifetime vote on the Court. Another line of objection:

As a liberal democrat, i'm not so sure about this [limited tenure]. i'm not particularly a supreme court scholar, but isn't the general trend for justices to become more liberal the longer they sit? ...

And i don't think that in today's political climate, a shorter term would mean easier confirmations. look at the obstruction of executive branch nominees by zany republicans.

In days of yore, "centrist" Republican appointees (Blackmun, Souter, Stevens, etc -- and long before them Earl Warren) appeared to become more liberal the longer they served. But Rehnquist? Scalia? Thomas? Both John Roberts and Samuel Alito seem headed down the "steady as she goes" path they blazed.

And, after my observation that Supreme Court confirmation hearings had taken on (among other traits) a Kabuki quality, many retorts to this effect:

I think the use of the term kabuki theater by the Washington press Corp is like a frog in boiling water.

Fair point. I hereby forswear any further use of that cliche. I'll just say they're inane, polarizing, and dishonest.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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