The Argument for Supreme Court Term Limits


Margot Norman, Staff Writer

Regardless of which side of the aisle one stands on, it is indisputable that the Supreme Court of the United States has been far from a favorite institution of the American public recently. From controversial decisions on climate change and the extent of second amendment rights, to the contentious ruling in Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court is increasingly ignoring the will of the American people in favor of staying true to the values and opinions of the individual Justices. This is an issue for a myriad of reasons, one of which being the country’s unnerving veer toward authoritarianism in recent years.


Because of the virtually unchecked power Justices are given once sworn into the SCOTUS, they begin to feel fully comfortable making decisions like the one in Dobbs, one that was at odds with the views of 62% of Americans. This use of the court’s unregulated power to make decisions that the majority of Americans actively disagree with, demonstrates a need for checks and balances beyond the minuscule threat of impeachment, something to ensure that the court remains not only apolitical, but secular in an era filled with a rise of Christian supremacism: term limits. 


Supreme Court appointments are for life unless a Justice resigns, supposedly guaranteeing an apolitical judiciary and that Justices act with the Constitution and the American people in mind, yet I would argue it ensures the opposite. By appointing SCOTUS Justices for life and only bringing their job into question under the most egregious of circumstances, Justices can essentially do whatever they want, and there is almost nothing policing their actions on the bench beyond their conscience. This utter lack of boundaries has led to highly controversial decisions becoming increasingly common as time passes.


The argument can be made, of course, that if a Justice is acting in a manner inconsistent with the Constitution, they would be impeached and that alone serves as an effective check on the court. Yet, Congress has not exercised its ability to impeach Justices in over 200 years. Because of the intentionally vague language found in the Constitution, and the seemingly infinite ways to interpret it, contentious decisions alone do not necessarily warrant impeachment of SCOTUS Justices. After all, many famous decisions regarding the rights of minority groups were highly controversial at the time they were decided, and may even be seen so in the modern day.


 These rulings do, however, demonstrate how flimsy precedents protecting the rights of marginalized groups can be, and demonstrate a need to regulate the court beyond the systems already in place. If SCOTUS term limits were imposed, Justices would no longer have the opportunity to sit on the bench for more than 35 years and would be appointed by presidents and a Senate more recently elected by the American people, leaving their decisions more likely to reflect the values of the public. 


Ten-year term limits, for example, would mean that every president would get to appoint up to eight Justices, depending on the length of their presidency, and such a quick judicial turnaround controlled by recently elected lawmakers would most certainly result in a Supreme Court that truly reflects the views of the citizens of the United States, not just the Justices and their interests.


The dire necessity of term limits can also be seen through the decisions of the most recent Supreme Court term, which reflects a horrifying change in the American legal sphere and government as a whole. Continuing with the example of Dobbs, in his now-infamous concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas outlined his intentions to reexamine cases guaranteeing the rights to gay marriage, homosexual relations, and more minority rights that are protected by precedent alone, something the current SCOTUS has proved does not hold the same weight as it once did. 


Justice Thomas is a perfect example of the dangers of an unregulated court that lacks term limits. Nominated in 1991 by the first President Bush, Justice Thomas has been on the court for more than three decades and does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, despite mounting personal and judicial controversy. For example, Justice Thomas’s wife Ginni was involved in many efforts to push lies concerning the 2020 election to the public and lawmakers, helped plan the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and even went so far as to petition Arizona lawmakers to overturn the results of that election in their state


While an individual is by no means responsible for the actions of their spouse, it is not unreasonable to bring Justice Thomas’s allegiances into question in light of this information, which is exactly what many have done. Despite many calls for Justice Thomas to recuse himself from cases concerning the 2020 election or the attack on the Capitol due to his wife’s actions, he has not made any efforts to do so; instead, he has continued to sit on the bench for these cases and, through this, made it apparent that he has no intentions of preserving the court’s status as an apolitical entity. 


Though Clarence Thomas may be an extreme example of a Justice abusing his power and compromising the sanctity of the court as a result, he is a perfect case of what a Justice is capable of doing with their intemperate power and enough audacity. If term limits were in place, Clarence Thomas would be long gone, and would never have wracked up the insane levels of confidence in his untouchable status that he currently possesses as a result of decades of unhindered power. 


Additionally, a Justice more recently appointed and confirmed by officials more recently elected by the public would be in Justice Thomas’s place, as well as those of all the other Justices appointed more than ten years ago. Consequently, if term-limits were instated, the SCOTUS bench would be reflective of the will of actual Americans, and not just that of an elite few, appointed decades ago. The SCOTUS Justices have grown accustomed to their unfettered power over the rights and fates of millions of Americans and as a result, have begun to abuse it.