Why the Supreme Court Needs Term Limits

Surina Naran, Guest Writer

May 1, 2022

What is the most powerful branch of the United States government? 


We might feel inclined to say the executive branch. Here sits the president, the most powerful person in the nation, with the power to pass or kill bills with the stroke of a pen and command an army of troops with a call. 


Next, we think that the legislative branch has the most power. They create those bills the president passes or vetos, and even can override the decision. This branch can declare war, this branch controls how the country spends money, and the laws of how we live and coexist. 


We now arrive at the third branch of government: The Judicial Branch. 


The Judicial Branch was vaguely established in the Constitution. It was outlined as a system with a single Supreme Court that held judicial power– power yielded by justices appointed for a lifetime. And though this lifetime Court claims to be a nonpartisan body, it’s clear that it is not. 


Partisan politics run the bench. While the legislative branch moves to nominate young justices to extend power, those on the bench refrain from retiring to prevent the other party from appointing a new justice. On September 18th, 2020, a vacant seat appeared on the high court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion in equal rights in the legal world and a left leaning justice, died while serving the bench. 


She was 87. 


Oyez, a judicial archive of the US Supreme Court, outlined the timeline of a new confirmation: Amy Coney Barrett, a strict traditionalist and a right leaning justice, was nominated for the seat a week later on September 26th and confirmed one month later. 


Why the rush? 


The presidential election of 2020 came a few weeks after Justice Barrett joined the high court, and the outcome was the exact reason why Senate Republicans rushed President Donald Trump’s nomination: the flip in leadership. The party acted in anticipation, and moved to confirm a justice to represent their party ideals. 


Both political parties move to nominate younger justices so they can serve longer. Barrett was forty eight when she was confirmed, and has the ability to serve for the next thirty years, should she want to. For perspective, I was almost sixteen years old when Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court. If she serves until she is eighty years old, she’ll leave the year I turn forty eight, the same age she got confirmed at. Through the years that the court will make the decisions that will directly impact my life– abortion, healthcare, free speech, college– Barrett will serve on the court. 


She’s my lifetime justice. 


The minds who sit on the high court will often think the same. While the world around them progresses, these minds won’t. They’ll likely vote the same way on issues.


Our current Supreme Court is treated like a ticking time bomb. There’s tense peace when all nine seats are full, but the second one seat opens, that bomb goes off. Names are pushed by the president, the Senate starts to underline favorites, the public watches eagerly. The controlling power grins, as they get to extend their political power for decades.


However, a new system of term limits could become a reality quite soon. 


Forbes reported in September that Democrats in the House have introduced a new bill to implement term limits in the court. The proposed bill would create 18 year term limits for any justices who sit on the court after the current nine justices. With this new bill in place, justices would be nominated every two years. Furthermore, to prevent the fast and end-of-term nominees like Justice Barrett, timelines of 120 days to act are outlined for the Senate’s confirmation process. 


Some might argue that the addition of justice confirmations for each president will add more factors to each presidential election, causing more polarization in election cycles. Voters might vote just for the purpose of choosing a justice, rather than a president. 


However, the proposed system with term limits would address this political race of nominate, confirm, retire, repeat. The insecurity of the unknown and the anxiety of risk fades, leaving in its place the opportunity for more thorough and partisan appointments. If a party is unhappy with an appointment, they can hold onto the idea that they will be able to confirm a justice of their own in two years time. These appointments will serve out their term, and retire, being a justice of the times rather than representing judicial mentality from thirty years prior. 


There is no way to stop the partisan drama from infiltrating our judicial system. There might be occasional rushed confirmations, like Amy Coney Barrett. But under this new system, we could see more honest, representative, and diligent appointments of justices.