But when the nation’s politics are polarized, partisan antagonism can shut down the entire system, as happened with Garland’s nomination. Staggered 18-year terms could help prevent that, lowering the stakes for each nomination while retaining an appropriate level of democratic accountability. When fully implemented, 18-year terms would evenly distribute appointments so that each president would nominate two justices per term, with a midyear election falling in between. Vacancies would be predictable and evenly paced, draining confirmation hearings of much of the current drama. If a sitting justice dies or needs to step down before his or her expected resignation date, the seat could be temporarily filled by a lower court judge or a retired one, drawn from a pool and sitting by designation.
Second, by tying appointments more predictably to each election’s results, this system would actually increase the Supreme Court’s democratic accountability. Numerous studies have found that justices over time “drift” from the ideological preferences of the governing coalition that appointed them. More-frequent turnover would reduce this drift. The Supreme Court’s views would better reflect the choices of the American people, rather than the vagaries of chance and time. Justices wouldn’t become too disconnected from mainstream American values.
One of the major problems with life tenure is that justices serve for so long that they can become out of touch with the nation they help lead. Staggered 18-year terms minimize this risk.
Finally, term limits could increase the quality of Supreme Court nominees.