Saturday, May 15, 2010

Another good idea that will go nowhere - term limits for Supreme Court and appellate court judges

I support the idea that Matt Yglesias and others have talked about a lot: a Constitutional amendment that sets term limits for Supreme Court and appellate court judges. Among other things, this would reduce the practice of nominating people for positions five or ten years earlier in their career than they should be nominated, as a mechanism to block future appointments by the opposing party.

More broadly, it can reduce somewhat the politicization of judicial appointments by reducing the stakes. I don't believe the judiciary can be depoliticized as long as judicial philosophical splits have political implications, but we can move back to a less divisive process by making the individuals less important. The forty-year appointments made by Bush and Obama will influence American policy in the middle of the 21st Century. No wonder they're so contentious. It's too much power both for the appointing presidents, and for the judges themselves.

I like the proposal for Supreme Court justices to have 18 year terms, appointed in odd-numbered (non-election) years, which would mean two appointments per presidential terms. To handle surprise vacancies, appointments in even-numbered years could be for 19 years - you wouldn't guarantee two appointments per presidential term, but it would average out close to that. For appellate judges, pick a number - I say 25 years. Guaranteed retirement and no reappointment allowed, to increase judicial independence.

Two other thoughts: first, retired judges and justices can do a lot of good, so this a way to increase the supply. Second, life extension technology becomes a serious issue when we're talking about appointments that can last forty years into the future. Who can insure that by 2050, the capability won't exist to add another 30 years to Chief Justice Roberts' lifespan? Similar nightmares apply to Republicans thinking about Obama appointments.

Limits make total sense to me, but will go nowhere. I dislike the false equivalence often made between the Republican Party leadership and the sane world, but in this case it's not so false - Democrats are only slightly more open to term limits than Republicans, AFAICT.

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