A justice’s tenure is outlined in Article III, Section I of the Constitution:
“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.”
The phrase “during good behavior” has been interpreted to mean that a judge can remain in office for the duration of their lifetime, unless they are removed from office for misconduct, or retire from their post voluntarily. Once a judge has assumed the bench, they may hold that position for the remainder of their lives if they so wish.
The premise behind instituting lifetime appointments was to reinforce the judiciary’s role as an independent branch of the U.S. Government. In theory, by giving federal judges and Supreme Court justices lifetime tenure that exceeds congressional or presidential term limits, they are insulated from the political pressures the executive and legislative branches could exert. Additionally, a judge cannot be recalled simply because their ideology has shifted since their appointment further insulating the judiciary against political reprisals from the other branches of government. Although the theory has been tested (see our FAQ entry about Justice Samuel Chase below for an example of political pressure on a justice), the majority of the Supreme Court’s justices have been perceived as sitting above the party politics that dominate the everyday actions of members of the legislative and executive branches.
One aspect of lifetime appointments that has evolved since the turn of the nineteenth century is the shift in life expectancy. The average American was expected to live until their mid-forties in the year 1800; today’s life expectancies push well into the 70s. That means that a judge appointed to a position at the age of 40, could easily have several decades on the bench before their retirement or death. Although the founders intended to protect the Court from political influence by refusing to impose term limits on its justices, did the framers of the Constitution imagine a half-century long tenure?.
Americans have debated whether or not to amend the Constitution to impose term limits for Supreme Court justices for decades. Those who favor such reforms cite concerns about older justices’ advanced age impeding their ability to fully perform their duties and assert that justices who have served for decades are too disconnected from modern societal norms to effectively make decisions that reflect the will of the people.
Those who favor retaining lifetime appointments for federal judges and justices find any criticism of the practice to be fundamentally unconstitutional. They believe that lifetime appointments are intrinsic to the way the judiciary functions and that imposing term limits would fundamentally weaken the Court’s ability to function independently of its sister branches.
The most recent development regarding term limits came in April of this year, when President Joe Biden announced that his administration would launch a bipartisan commission to examine potential reforms to the Supreme Court. In addition to examining options like expanding the Supreme Court, the commision plans to review whether or not term limits for justices should be imposed.