If every two years the president could nominate a new person to the Supreme Court Justice, the Court could have more than nine Justices. Instead of having the entire group decide all cases, which could be unwieldy, or instead of drawing nine from all the Justices, there is another intriguing possibility. The nine most recently appointed Justices would regularly render the Supreme Court decisions. The displaced Justices would move to a reserve status. That judge would be available whenever one of the regular nine was unavailable for whatever reason such as illness or a conflict of interest. If one of the regular nine died or resigned, the last regularly sitting justice would become one of the regular nine again until another Justice was appointed at the scheduled time.
An obvious question arises. Would this violate the constitutional provision that federal judges have life tenure? (The Constitution actually says judges “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.”) I don’t think so. Judges who were appointed more than eighteen years ago and moved to the new reserve status would still hold office. Chief Justice Roberts in his nomination hearing said that he planned to judge like an umpire calling balls and strikes without his personal values affecting his decisions. Let’s stay with the baseball analogy. Nine players take the field, but the other players on the roster are available to come into the game if needed. The players on the field are in the major leagues, but those in the bullpen or in the dugout (I wanted to say “on the bench.” Ha. Ha.) are major leaguers and are on the team, too. With this proposal, the nine Judges actively sitting on the bench (Oxymoron? Actively sitting?) are Supreme Court Justices, but those back in chambers waiting to be called upon would also be Supreme Court Justices, and they can stay in that office during good behavior.
With this proposal, judges would regularly decide cases for eighteen years. That eighteen-year period has advantages. Among other things, it would move the Court to the practice that it has had for most of its history. Before 1959, the average length of tenure on the Supreme Court was thirteen or fourteen years. Since 1959, it has been about twenty-five years. Current Justices have served longer. Clarence Thomas has been serving for twenty-nine years and Stephen Breyer for twenty-six. Chief Justice Roberts and Samuel Alito have been on the Court for fifteen years while the other Justices have been sitting for shorter periods.
That eighteen-year period could also lead to an expanded pool of people to be considered for a nomination. Wanting to leave as long a legacy on the Supreme Court as possible, presidents today are not likely to appoint someone who is sixty or older. God forbid, that person might be on the Court for a mere twenty years! Find someone who is younger and expect a tenure of thirty or more years. Thus, Amy Coney Barrett, the last person appointed to the Supreme Court, went on the bench when she was forty-eight and her two immediate predecessors on the Court, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, were fifty-three and forty-nine, respectively. Fifty-five is the oldest age at which any of the present Supreme Court Justices was appointed, and Clarence Thomas was only forty-three. Knowing, however, that the most active period of judging will be “only” eighteen years, a president can consider a wider range of age and experience for a nominee.
Giving every president an appointment every two years may also reduce the partisanship of the Supreme Court and certainly should reduce the perception of partisanship. Currently it is mere chance that determines how many, if any, nominations the chief executive will have. Some presidents have a greater opportunity to pack the court with ideological bedfellows than others. With this reform all presidents would be treated equally. The appointments might be just as partisan as now, but the partisanship is more likely to be balanced and in sync with “the people” as we elect presidents.
The partisan games we have just witnessed during which the Senate denied a consideration of Merrick Garland but forced through the confirmation of Barrett would end. Such maneuvers that strengthen the notion that the Court is not a neutral body might end. Similarly, the present situation calling for the resignation of Justice Breyer so that “our side” can appoint a younger person, which also tends to treat the Court as just another partisan body, should disappear.
This reform should not put be into place immediately. Of course, Republicans would oppose it if it gave Biden two appointments in the next four years. Instead, it should start after the next presidential election with the newly-elected president getting his/her first appointment on July 1, 2025, and one every two years thereafter. Perhaps this might even lead to a more information-driven presidential campaign with candidates, knowing they will have two and only two nominations, revealing to the electorate who those candidates might be.
I am sure there are downsides to this proposal, but would it really be bad to treat all presidents equally? And why is it bad if unelected Justices decided cases for “only” eighteen years when most Justices before 1960 did not serve that long?
(This essay will be posted in order on Monday May 3)