Why do the supreme court justices have a life term period?

  • The justices of the Supreme Court of the United States is composed by chief justices which have a life-term period on that position after they are "elected".

    I have always asked to myself why some positions are by life-term, is there any reason like avoid corruption?

    @MichaelMrozek Unless they teach singing, possibly. Probably auto-correct.

    (put as a joke) Maybe at the time of the writing of the constitution, lifespan was not as it is now; and there was a faster turn around ?

  • (You've got some terminology confusion: the Chief Justice is the head of the court, the rest are just "justices")

    When the Constitution was being written the framers were used to Great Britain's monarchy, and were somewhat eager to limit the monarch's (in the case of the U.S., the executive branch's) power. The U.S. government places a high value on checks and balances between the branches, and the English notion of the king arbitrarily firing a judge he didn't like was problematic. In the Federalist Papers #78, Hamilton wrote:

    The standard of good behavior for the continuance in office of the Judicial magistracy, is certainly one of the most valuable of the modern improvements in the practice of Government. In a monarchy, it is an excellent barrier to the despotism of the Prince; in a republic it is a no less excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body. And it is the best expedient which can be devised in any Government, to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.

    In short, the court is around to make sure the other branches don't decide to start eliminating fundamental rights

    Furthermore, term limits mean there's more pressure to keep the people happy; even if justices aren't directly elected like many other politicians, the opinion of the country will have a big impact on whether or not they keep their seats. From the same paper:

    This independence of the Judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals, from the effects of those ill humors, which the arts of designing men, or the influence of particular conjunctures, sometimes disseminate among the People themselves, and which, though they speedily give place to better information, and more deliberate reflection, have a tendency, in the mean time, to occasion dangerous innovations in the Government, and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community. Though I trust the friends of the proposed Constitution will never concur with its enemies, in questioning that fundamental principle of republican Government, which admits the right of the People to alter or abolish the established Constitution, whenever they find it inconsistent with their happiness, yet it is not to be inferred from this principle, that the Representatives of the People, whenever a momentary inclination happens to lay hold of a majority of their constituents, incompatible with the provisions in the existing Constitution, would, on that account, be justifiable in a violation of those provisions; or that the Courts would be under a greater obligation to connive at infractions in this shape, than when they had proceeded wholly from the cabals of the Representative body. Until the People have, by some solemn and authoritative act, annulled or changed the established form, it is binding upon themselves collectively, as well as individually; and no presumption, or even knowledge of their sentiments, can warrant their Representatives in a departure from it, prior to such an act. But it is easy to see, that it would require an uncommon portion of fortitude in the Judges to do their duty as faithful guardians of the Constitution, where Legislative invasions of it had been instigated by the major voice of the community.

    Which I would interpret to mean: justices shouldn't need to fear for their jobs every time they make a decision that might be unpopular, even if it's in the country's interests long term, because most judges won't have the nerve to do what's right


    As a sidenote, the notion of life appointments for Supreme Court justices hasn't been without controversy, particularly of late. Increased life expectencies means justices have been serving for longer than ever before, and some people feel that the checks against the judicial branch is considerably weaker than the other branches. Term Limits for the Supreme Court: Life Tenure Reconsidered proposed 18-year term limits, staggered so a new justice is appointed every two years. The Supreme Court Renewal Act proposed the same scheme

    Originally, the United States court system had very little power. Only after John Marshall's decision in Marbury v. Madison did the Supreme Court gain its power, judicial review. A number of John Marshall's decisions, such as Cohens v. Virginia, gave the Supreme Court more power (in this particular case, the supremacy of the national Supreme Court over the state supreme courts).

    @JKor I look at it more as the Supreme Court always had judicial review, they just didn't really try it out until Marbury v. Madison. They can't give themselves powers, they just decided to interpret the Constitution as meaning they always had that power, and nobody stopped them. Also, IMO the Federalist Papers (particularly the one I was quoting, #78) were pretty clear that judicial review was intended from the beginning

    I can see your point. Marbury v Madison probably was the first chance to really try out judicial review. I'm not an expert on Supreme Court cases so I'm not sure what high profile cases came before Marbury v Madison (if there were any), that would have given a reasonable chance for Marshall to use judicial review.

    @JKor There's a good list here. The only case of great historical significance was _Chisholm v. Georgia_, which was swiftly overturned by a constitutional amendment.

    Ironically, in attempting to separate the powers, the US has ended up with a far more politicised judiciary than is the case in Britain. Judicial appointments are almost entirely uncontested here. The reason for this is the different seat of supreme power. In America it is held to be in the Constitution (which is interpreted by judges). In Britain it is in Parliament, where supreme power is held. Under our unwritten constitution, a parliament can do literally anything, except bind a successive one.

    @JKor: In cases where a law or statute is genuinely ambiguous, judges can't be expected to make a decision without first determining what all the relevant rules are. If statutes and laws don't provide enough rules to make a decision, judges will have to formulate rules for that purpose. The problem is that such ad hoc rules end up being awarded greater standing than other statutes and laws even in cases where the latter aren't ambiguous. MvM can actually be read two different ways: if the judge is doing his job the law will be what the judge says it is...

    ...but that doesn't imply that the judge *causes* the law be what he says it is. If the judge is doing his job legitimately, he will say what the law *already* was, or could have been without contradiction. Of course, not all judges behave legitimately all the time.

    The U.S. judiciary remained very weak until long after *Maybury v. Madison*. Judicial review was very rare and the Bill of Rights were basically a dead letter until around the time of WWI, and took a while to get going, and the federal judiciary was tiny until the 1890s and wasn't pervasively influential in American life until after WWII.

    Also, life expectancies were much shorter in the 1780s when the constitution was written, and many early federal judges resigned for more prestigious posts in state government and the private sector in the early days of the republic.

    Interestingly, the alternative to lifetime tenure is to rule out reappointments altogether. Both make judges less receptive to political pressure, as the threat of not being reappointed becomes a non-issue. The second alternative is used in some other constitutional courts, for example in Germany.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM