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?


4 Answers 4


(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

  • 2
    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
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 2:57
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    @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 Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 3:02
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    @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.
    – Taymon
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 3:56
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    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.
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 11:26
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    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.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 3:48

The reason that Supreme Court Justices(not just the chief justice, which is the head of the court) serve a life term is so that they do not have to worry about being thrown out of the court after making a decision. The idea is that judges should be able to rule without regards to public opinion, because they are meant to interpret The Constitution, not public opinion.

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    While true to a certain extent, ruling without regard to public opinion to obtain re-election does not require a life appointment. It simply requires a maximum of a single term. This answer could be improved if it explained why a lifetime appointment was chosen over single term appointments.
    – Jontia
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 10:54
  • I'm not sure if the founding fathers considered term limits at any point, but they did not impose them on any government officials. The presidential term limit wasn't added until the XXII Amendment in 1951. Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 20:47

Judges are not in office for life, they are allowed to serve for life as long as while serving they continue to use "good Behavior" as required by the US Constitution, Article 3, section 1:

The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior,...

What is good behavior? It is doing the duties as assigned by the US Constitution, taking and keeping their Oath(s).

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    This seems more of a technicality than an answer to the question. Senators are given 6 year terms--but only if they don't do things that would end it sooner (like break the law and get kicked out).
    – user1530
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 5:42

Actually the idea that Supreme Court Justices are appointed to life time appointments is a bit deceptive. The constitution is vague on any term .

US Constitution Article III Section 1.

The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.

In reality, the President nominates a person to hold the position of Supreme Court Justice or of any other Federal Judge position. They must be confirmed by Congress.

In theory, any president could nominate a whole new Supreme Court and it would have to go before congress for approval. It is not likely that it would pass muster but there is nothing to prevent it.

The constitution says that Justices shall hold their offices during good behavior. It does not say they can not be replaced by a new nomination.

It does say if they behave badly they can be removed,which means without consent of the President.

The lack of definition leaves too many open ended arguments to be made. I personally believe that there should be term limits on the Judiciary as well as the legislative branch. That would require a constitutional amendment that would have to be ratified by two thirds of the states according to most experts. I disagree with that. I believe since the constitution does not define terms, then a congressional act setting those terms would not require a constitutional amendment.

I do however believe that without a constitutional amendment, it would mean little since the next congress could come along and change it right back by legislative act.

The vague outlines that surround the Supreme Court a well as all of the Federal Judiciary should definitely be addressed in some manner that is consistent.

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    What part of "shall hold their offices" allows them to be replaced after a set period of time? Also, 3/4 of states are needed to pass an amendment, not 2/3.
    – D M
    Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 1:53

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