Scalia's Death Revives Call For Supreme Court Term Limits

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The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for an official photo. (U.S. Supreme Court)
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for an official photo. (U.S. Supreme Court)

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia is bringing up an old question: Should Supreme Court justices have term limits?

Justice Scalia served for 30 years, and some think that was too long. In fact, a Reuters/Ipsos poll last year found that 66 percent of Americans now support the idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices.

Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Paul Carrington, a professor emeritus of law at Duke University, who has long been calling for term limits for justices.

Interview Highlights: Paul Carrington

On the Constitution stipulating that federal judges can stay in office as long as they maintain good behavior

“Staying too long is not good behavior - Congress can define good behavior. But on the other hand, the tradition in the Supreme Court of the United States that was practiced into the 20th century was the justices would keep an eye on one another. If somebody got a little bit attenuated and fragile, the other guys would come to him and say, ‘Judge, it’s time for you to quit.’ And he would.”

Why Supreme Court justices are not retiring anymore

“The job has become more politicized, and they have a large sense of power. Moreover, they’ve got a lot of help, they’ve got a huge number, three or four law clerks who can do the heavy lifting. They don’t have very many decisions they have to make so it’s a relatively easy job in that sense.”

On his opinion of the common belief that elders are among the wisest in society

“I wouldn’t deny that there are some wise people who are very old, although I would be a little bit questioning of how you would identify those people. Part of what was a concern is that increasingly, the Supreme Court has been making decisions that are highly political. They are interpreting the Constitution in ways that bear heavily on a lot of decisions that people want to vote on. And that wasn’t going on in the 18th century, it wasn’t going on until the last few decades.”

Whether getting rid of term limits would make justices more susceptible to popular opinion

“I don’t think any of the justices are very sensible to popular prejudice in any case, but if they are going to be making political decisions, then it’s not too bad an idea for them to at least be thinking about, in a democratic government, what the people want or believe or would anticipate.”

How he would define a term limit

“Those of us who were thinking about it together did come up with this scheme which says that presidents can appoint somebody to the Supreme Court every term of Congress, every two years.”

On Ted Cruz’s proposed constitutional amendment that would require justices to face retention elections

“Well, Ted Cruz comes from Texas and that is where they elect their judges directly. And they also spend a lot of money on campaign finance so what it would mean is then that our justices are those who are purchased by the funders of their campaigns for the office.”


This segment aired on February 26, 2016.


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