Why the Supreme Court Needs Term Limits

The best solution to the increasingly politicized and unseasoned Court is to limit justices to 18-year terms.
Larry Downing/Reuters

This has been quite a time for anniversaries: the 50th of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 50th of the Great Society, the 60th of Brown v. Board of Education. Each has produced a flurry of celebrations and analyses, including the latest, on Brown. Here's one more.

Ten years ago, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Brown, I attended one of the most interesting and moving panels ever. Yale Law School brought together six luminaries who had been clerks to Supreme Court justices during the deliberations over the Brown decision. They talked about the internal discussions and struggles to reach agreement, and the fact that the decision actually took two years. The justices—including Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Sherman Minton, and others—tried mightily to build a consensus. Whatever their ideological predispositions, they all understood that this decision would alter the fabric of American society. They also knew it would reverberate for a long time, exacerbating some deep-seated societal divisions even as it would heal so many others and right so many wrongs.

The two terms allowed the justices to reach a unanimous conclusion. Afterward, Frankfurter penned a handwritten note to Warren that read: "Dear Chief: This is a day that will live in glory. It is also a great day in the history of the Court, and not in the least for the course of deliberation which brought about the result. I congratulate you."

As I read that letter, I thought about what would have happened if the current Supreme Court were transported back to decide Brown. Two years of deliberation? No way. Unanimous or even near-unanimous decision? Forget it. The decision would have been 5-4 the other way, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race"—leaving separate but equal as the standard. The idea that finding unanimity or near-unanimity was important for the fabric of the society would never have come up.

Recent analyses have underscored the new reality of today's Supreme Court: It is polarized along partisan lines in a way that parallels other political institutions and the rest of society, in a fashion we have never seen. A couple of years ago, David Paul Kuhn, writing here, noted that the percentage of rulings by one-vote margins is higher under Roberts than any previous chief justice in American history. Of course, many decisions are unanimous—but it is the tough, divisive, and most important ones that end up with the one-vote margins.

The New York Times's Adam Liptak weighed in recently with a piece called "The Polarized Court," in which he said, "For the first time, the Supreme Court is closely divided along party lines." Scott Lemieux, in The Week, noted further that the polarization on the Court, like the polarization in Congress, is asymmetric; conservative justices have moved very sharply to the right, liberals a bit more modestly to the left. Much of the movement did occur before Roberts was elevated to the Supreme Court, but his leadership has sharpened the divisions much more, on issues ranging from race and voting rights to campaign finance and corporate power.

How did we get here? As politics have become polarized and as two-party competition intensified, control of the courts—which are increasingly making major policy decisions—became more important. With lifetime appointments, a party in power for two or four years could have sway over policy for decades after it left power. But to ensure that sway meant picking judges who were virtual locks to rule the way the party in power wanted. That meant track records in judicial opinions, and that in turn meant choosing sitting judges to move up to the Supreme Court. It also meant choosing younger individuals with more ideology and less seasoning; better to have a justice serving for 30 years or more than for 20 or less.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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