There seems to be an increasing appetite in the country for some sort of changes at the Supreme Court. This is nothing new… every time the court hands down a series of highly controversial decisions there are going to be people saying that the system is broken and seeking a way to “fix” it, and we’re in a period where both sides have been handed some serious setbacks. In fact, the latest C-SPAN poll shows that a near record number of Americans now view the highest court as a partisan and ineffective branch of the government rather than the blind lady of justice, and would like to see some changes. (From The Hill)
When asked about term limits for the justices, three in five Americans, or roughly 60 percent, said they disagree with lifetime appointments, compared to 6 percent of American who said they strongly prefer lifetime appointments for justices and 79 percent said they would prefer 18-year term limits instead with the possibility of reappointments.
As for future openings on the bench, 51 percent of respondents said they’d like to see the next Supreme Court justice nominee come from a different educational background other than the Ivy League. All nine of the justices attended Harvard, Yale or Columbia.
We’ll return to theoretical restructuring in a moment, but one far more doable change is also gaining in popularity. If we can’t change how the court members are assigned and how long they stay, how about at least letting us keep a closer eye on what they’re up to by allowing cameras in there for all the arguments?
More Americans this time around also voiced support for cameras in the courtroom. In the poll, 76 percent said that the Supreme Court should allow television coverage of its oral arguments, 15 percentage points up from a PSB poll in June 2009.
76% is a fairly staggering number for anything in a political culture where you generally can’t get that many people to agree on whether or not milk is good for you. But before we get too excited, let’s remember that it’s virtually impossible to force the Supreme Court to do anything. But at the same time, we shouldn’t pretend that they don’t keep an eye on the headlines and an ear to the ground when it comes to their own legacy. If there’s enough pressure and discontent, I suppose it’s possible that they might relent and just open up the court to cameras.
At the same time, what do they really have to fear from them? Sure, it will provide another stream of headlines and analysts will be examining and second guessing the “tone” of the justices as they ask questions or sigh or nod off at the bench. But the media and the public can be as unhappy as they like and that still doesn’t have to change the decisions being handed down. There is no one to second guess the Supremes once they rule.
So how about those ideas regarding term limits and selection of justices? Do you suppose we’ll be seeing any changes on that front, such as Ted Cruz has suggested? Sam Baker at National Review examines the idea this week and finds that such a plan is Popular, Bipartisan, and Hopeless.
But even though the issue polls well, no one has introduced a bill in Congress to impose term limits on the high court. Roth said Fix the Court is hoping to see such a proposal soon, but isn’t working with any specific lawmakers to make it happen.
Moreover, taking away justices’ lifetime tenure would require a constitutional amendment—no easy task in any Congress, but certainly not in a polarized Capitol that has struggled just to keep the lights on.
Good luck with that. Getting justices to agree to step down after a certain number of years still relies on the good will of the justice in question to carry through when the time comes. Absent a change to the Constitution I just don’t see how you enforce it. And I also have a great deal of sympathy for those who note that something like 18 year terms would begin turning the court into more of an election spectacle, subject to the whims of public appetite. That sounds pretty much contrary to the intentions of the founders.
In the end, we like the court when they decide things the way we want to see them and we curse them when the call goes against us. And, yes… the court is composed of fallible human beings and they screw up from time to time… occasionally royally. But until somebody comes up with a viable alternative that you could sell across the nation to enough state legislatures, we’re probably stuck with what we have.
We might still get the cameras, though. Even if nothing else changes we’d have more things to complain about at least.