Life terms might make sense if Supreme Court justices had life spans comparable to those of rock stars. But they don’t. Possibly because they don’t typically abuse drugs, or possibly because they don’t fly as often on private planes, Supreme Court justices live much, much longer than rock stars. And because they usually aspire to leaving office feet first—a goal often met—they’re much more likely to become gaga on the job. Another problem is that longevity has made the Supreme Court confirmation process extremely partisan and contentious—the stakes are just too absurdly high. The era of bitter Supreme Court confirmation fights—some say the era of bitter partisan politics in general—began in 1987, when Democrats defeated Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork. That was a quarter-century ago, and if Sen. Ted Kennedy, D.-Mass., hadn’t played it pretty rough (“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution,” etc.) then Bork, who turned 85 last month, would probably still be sitting on the Court.
Term limits are a conservative idea (when he was still in the GOP nomination race Rick Perry favored limits for Supreme Court justices) but they’ve also become popular lately among liberals: Rick Hertzberg, Matt Yglesias, and my esteemed predecessor in this space, Jonathan Chait, have all come out for it. Wishing for term limits sure feels healthier than wishing that whatever voting bloc you happen to dislike crosses a six-lane highway against the light to buy ice cream cones and gets flattened by a tractor trailer.