It’s Time for Federal Judicial Term Limits

Yes, you read the headline correctly.  I’m calling for an end to lifetime appointments for federal judges.

Contrary to what most people on the extremes of the political spectrum (both right and left) will tell you, there is nothing wrong with evolving your opinions. In fact any sane and reasonably intelligent person needs to listen and learn throughout their life and occasionally adjust their views on various subjects.

I’d like to think that I fall into that sane and reasonably intelligent category. Certainly President Barack Obama does and much as he would be loath to acknowledge it, so would Mitt Romney. Both of these men have evolved their views over the course of their careers, more for political expediency than actual heartfelt beliefs, but at least their positions have moved.

Recently I’ve heard the idea of term limits for federal judges raised and I’m now inclined to agree.  In principle, I agree with the way that the judiciary was set up in the constitution. By appointing judges for life, it was supposed to remove partisanship and political considerations from their rulings.

However, in order for that concept to truly work, we have to appoint the superior jurists to begin with based on their qualifications and not their political ideology. The problem is that it’s exceedingly difficult to be an impartial judge that keeps their own political beliefs out of their rulings. As we’ve seen in recent decades, that becomes even more difficult with age.

We all know old people and most of will one day achieve that status. The fact is that as we get older we get more and more set in our habits and beliefs. It’s neither right nor wrong, it’s just the way we are.  However, the world is changing around us, and faster than ever today. That means that anyone that is going make decisions about the law, needs to adapt as well.

As hard as it is to select good judges, the problem is made even more difficult by politicians that are taking an increasingly hard political line.  Presidents have always taken politics into account when appointing judges, especially to the supreme court, but it does seem to have taken a turn for the worse in the last few decades and Republicans (and to a lesser degree Democrats) in the senate have truly politicized the process.

It’s time for us to acknowledge that despite the aims of the constitution, politics is a big part of the judicial branch and that we need to do something about that. Lifetime terms for federal judges have not had the desired effect of de-politicizing the judiciary as both Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito demonstrated in their boisterous opinions from the bench this week.

Since we are clearly incapable of selecting truly impartial justices, and they only seem to get worse over time, I suggest we limit the terms of federal judges to 12 years.

I’m generally not in favor of arbitrary term limits for elected officials since this often leads to inexperienced legislators that can’t seem to do anything but bicker. I’d prefer to have voters cast out their representatives. On the other hand, I don’t think that direct elections of judges are a good thing either.

I think the president should continue to select federal judges with the senate confirming these choices. However, after 12 years, the judges must step down from the federal bench and never return. Like the Senate’s 6-year terms that are staggered so that only one-third is up for re-election every two years, judicial terms should be staggered.  In general no president should be allowed to appoint more than two supreme court justices in a single term. In the event that a judge dies, falls ill or resigns before their term is up, if more than two years remain in the term, the president can appoint a replacement to serve the remainder of that term.  If less than two years are left, the appointee can finish the existing term and a complete twelve year term.

Details would have to be worked out, but I think the time for lifetime federal judges is behind us and we need to evolve our views on this topic.

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