Since we were children, we’ve learned that the American government consists of three branches of power that each hold a check on the other: executive, legislative, and judicial. The White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. The legislature passes bills that the executive signs into law, and the executive nominates Supreme Court justices that the legislature then approves. In a vacuum, it seems like a pretty sustainable system.
But there’s one major difference that tips the scales of power over to the Supreme Court: lifelong term limits.
As we all know, the President is limited to two terms in office, for an absolute maximum of 8 years. Members of Congress don’t have limitations on how many times they can run for office, but at least they have to keep running for re-election. Every 2 to 6 years, the people weigh in and determine if their representative is worthy of being sent back to Congress.
Not the Supreme Court, however. No, on the Supreme Court, once you win your Senate confirmation hearings, you’re a Justice for life. Just about nothing can result in your firing. It’s arguably the most stable employment in the entire world.
The idea behind lifelong terms was noble enough. Without the need to constantly worry about re-election, the thought is that Justice will be able to act as “non-partisan” entities because they have no elections to raise funds for, no television ads to shoot, and no babies to kiss at the Iowa State Fair.
No, the thought is that, by giving them lifetime employment, Supreme Court justices will float “above” petty partisan squabbles and focus on what’s really important: the law and the constitution.
The major problem with this theory? It’s a load of horseshit.
Let’s reframe this another way: If you had a comfortable job that bestowed upon you historical privilege and a $250,000 yearly salary – and there was literally nothing you could do to lose your job – what would you get away with? Would you actually work your hardest?
Think about how easily corruptible politicians become when they are constantly worried about fundraising and re-election, and then think about how easily corruptible someone might become if they literally couldn’t lose their job no matter what.
When those in power feel so safe and secure so as to do whatever they please… well, you end up with someone like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Clarence Thomas, nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, is perhaps the most controversial Supreme Court Justice (although there is heavy competition) due to his recently-uncovered history of accepting exorbitant gifts from wealthy political contributors who had direct financial stakes in the outcome of Supreme Court cases.
To make a long story short, a billionaire partisan megadonor named Harlan Crowe had bestowed lavish gifts upon Justice Thomas, including numerous luxury travel vacations, buying a new home for the Justice’s mother, and even paying for the college tuition of Justice Thomas’s grandnephew. Not only did Harlan Crowe have vested interests in the outcome of Supreme Court cases that Justice Thomas ruled on, Justice Thomas didn’t even bother to disclose these gifts and financial entanglements. After all, why would he? It’s not like he’s in any realistic danger of losing one of the 9 most powerful jobs in the entire country.
The point of this article isn’t to bash Clarence Thomas specifically – it’s to underscore the grave dangers that our political system lets fester when we let certain public offices have lifelong term limits. It’s an open gateway for potential corruption and partisan polarization because the individual serving a life term is essentially giving them carte blanche to “get away” with as much as possible.
This compounds an even deeper issue infecting all of American politics – hyperpolarization. As public offices in all forms become more politicized and partisan, the Supreme Court is no different. Nearly half of the current Justices on the Supreme Court were confirmed by a margin of 5 Senate votes – one of them squeaked by with an infinitesimal 2 vote margin, the closest in Supreme Court history.
We’re handing controversial and biased Supreme Court Justices lifelong terms for them to do as they please with basically no further oversight or regulation possible by the current system. It’s no wonder that public trust in the Supreme Court as an institution is drastically falling – now currently at the lowest levels ever recorded.
Call us crazy, but maybe – just maybe – getting rid of lifelong terms and having the Supreme Court face accountability for their actions as public representatives might just be the antidote here. As we’ve seen, the Supreme Court won’t hold itself accountable for its own corrupt practices. Currently, there’s little else our system can even do. That’s why it’s so important that we elect independent candidates who will champion causes like term limits and additional checks on corruption. The system as currently constructed certainly won’t change itself.
Term limits are also important even for offices that don’t enshrine lifelong tenure. Take the Senate for example. Even though each Senate term is 6 years, entrenched partisan politics have given such an unfair advantage to the incumbent that we currently have senators like Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley, who both turn 90 years old in 2023.
Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in 1992, and Grassley was first elected in 1981. Having the same Senator in office for three to four decades doesn't exactly scream "healthy democracy." They are essentially lifelong appointees, just having gone through the formality of being elected (often with the help of dark money that can’t be traced). But hey - at least there’s technically a chance we can vote them out. Not so for Supreme Court Justices.
Our democracy needs stronger protections against corruption and against partisan toxicity. If that sounds like something you support and want to see applied more broadly to our political system, consider joining Good Party. We’re working to make it easier for independents outside of the two-party system to win office and restore fairness to our political system.