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Term limits should apply to Supreme Court justices

Published: Monday, October 1, 2012

Updated: Monday, October 1, 2012 01:10

With the Supreme Court embarking on a week in which it will address some of the most hot-button issues it has dealt with in decades, including affirmative action and voting rights issues that could challenge the core of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it begs the question as to whether justices should serve lifelong terms.

When the framers of the Constitution declared that justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior,” their intentions were surely not less than pure, for in theory justice and morality should supersede political affiliations and the individual.

But a study from Northwestern, and even a quick look at voting records, shows that since 1937, Supreme Court justices have become more politically polarized, voting more along party lines. While this may not have been an issue in the 1780s, when the average life expectancy was lower than it is now, and according to another study, the average “life” term was about 15 years, the average justice term on the Supreme
Court is now about 30 years.

While ideally Supreme Court justices should merely interpret the Constitution and not impart their political ideology onto the courts, “packing” the Supreme Court has been used as a means of ensuring political power long after a presidential term. Justice John Roberts’ decision to rule in favor of universal health care, to the chagrin of many conservatives who helped him into power, was an exception to the trend of voting along party lines.

But the lifelong appointment of justices is irrelevant in a fast-paced society that is constantly evolving. Next week starts the term in which the court will address the issue of gay marriage. According to Gallup polls, in 2012, 50 percent of the general public supported gay marriage, while 48 percent opposed. In 1996, 27 percent supported the idea, and 68 percent were opposed. Yet Ronald Reagan, who served as president
from 1981-89, appointed two of the justices voting on the issue and George H. W. Bush, who succeeded
Reagan in office, appointed two.

The issue of whether or not gay marriage is constitutional should be the same whether it was determined
in 1792 or 2012, if indeed the Constitution has remained the same and justices’ mere functions are to interpret the Constitution.

But if justices are being used as political tools, then those serving on the Court should not be reflective of a viewpoint elected into office in the 1980s, but rather of the present time period.

But beyond issues of politics and social beliefs lie issues of relevancy.

With technology blossoming at rates faster than is comprehensible, issues of privacy, morality and all sorts of unthinkables may soon come into question. Will those justices appointed eons ago be the best suited to interpret the applicability of the Constitution?
In an ideal world, justices should be interchangeable, each able to reach the same outcome given the
facts. Until politics can be detangled from the justice system, a carte blanche should not be given to justices for life.

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