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I note the related question Why do the supreme court justices have a life term period? However, that question focused on why they have life terms at all. I want to focus instead on what benefits could be provided by the current life-term system, over the concept of fixed length terms (i.e. justices only serve for x years with no repeats).

Life terms are valuable because they prevent justices from feeling obligated to vote some way in order to win a re-election. This is still a feature of fixed length terms, so fixed lengths are equally viable in this regard.

In contrast, life terms have the issue that if the president makes a "bad" appointment (in the eyes of the public), the country may be stuck with that person for 30 or 40 years, a whole 2 generations. That's a lot of time to be a bad justice and cause damage. I see this as a major downside of life terms.

I currently see only disadvantages to life terms compared to fixed length terms. So I ask - what advantages are there, if any, of the current life term system over fixed length?

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  • How is a fixed term length of 100 years fundamentally different from a life appointment? Once you realize that, you notice the terms are arbitrary and lowering them (for example from 45 to 37) is kind of political min-maxing.
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 25 at 19:23
  • It's been proposed: govtrack.us/congress/bills/116/hr8424/summary Jun 25 at 22:07
  • @uberhaxed I obviously don't mean a fixed length of 100 years, and I recognize the lengths are arbitrary. However, shorter terms limit the power of any one person, Supreme Court justices included.
    – Drake P
    Jun 25 at 23:11

2 Answers 2

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In theory life terms provide even stronger independence than simply not needing to run for re-election.

Not only does a life-term not have to worry about positioning themselves with the people who might vote for them after their term expires, they also don't have to worry about positioning themselves with the people who might hire them after their term expires! They can serve as long as they want, so they don't need another job ever again, so they have no need of anyone's favour for their continued prosperity.1

Judges serving a fixed term know that they will need a new position, and thus might have (or be seen to have) incentive to rule in favour of people who could potentially offer them an attractive position after their term is up. And note that this exact criticism is often made of politicians, so it's not a theoretical issue.

Whether this additional independence is better than limiting the duration any one justice can have influence is probably impossible to know.


1 As long as they don't serve so badly they are impeached.

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  • 2
    Both of those problems could be solved by giving the Justices a generous lifetime pension after their term expires. Jun 26 at 0:20
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    @SurpriseDog Presidents get a lifetime pension and still do six figure speeches in the industry after they leave office (see Clinton, Bush, Obama, and probably Trump). I'm not old enough to know before Clinton if the prior presidents did so as well but I don't doubt.
    – uberhaxed
    Jun 26 at 5:58
  • True, but I don't know if that's enough to influence their politics while in office or just an ego trip for a bored ex-president. Jun 26 at 15:33
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    There’s a difference between doing paid speaking as one of a handful ex-presidents, and being hired for a regular job. I don’t think being one of 20-40 ex-justices will have the same pull for giving talks, and unless you keep paying them the same as sitting members and prohibit them from taking other jobs, some will want to do so, either for the money or to stay busy.
    – Bobson
    Jun 26 at 16:02
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    There was a judge at the German Bundesverfassungsgericht (constitutional court) that became a member of the board of directors at Daimler AG directly after her (fixed, 12-year) term as a judge: Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt. She has not been accused of partiality, but when she left another board position at Volkswagen in 2017 with a multi-million severance payment, it surely raised some eyebrows..
    – ccprog
    Jun 27 at 0:42
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The advantage is that judges stay dedicated to their community of concern. Creating elections for judges makes it an "agenda" that brings the issue to themselves, rather than their community.

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    I don't think that's what the question is asking about. Jun 25 at 19:53

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