Mike the Mad Biologist

The Case for Judicial Age Limits

I’ve been meaning to get to this proposal by Matthew Yglesias about judicial term limits for Supreme Court justices. He argues:

The strongest argument I can make in favor is that it would create a less-random relationship between election outcomes and the composition of the judiciary….

…the current system creates too many incentives for a physically or mentally incapacitated justice to try to hang on to his seat until someone more ideologically congenial gets into the White House. Conversely, the current system causes the age of a nominee to loom too large in the decision-making calculus. In exchange, life tenure accomplishes basically nothing that a longish fixed term plus a pension wouldn’t accomplish.

But I think this isn’t sufficient. If you had ten-year terms (seems “longish”), there is considerable opportunity to influence the bench through corruption.

How?

Well, at some point, justices would have to leave the bench. It’s analogous to the reason why I think so many congresscritters are corrupt–it’s the retirement, stupid:

It’s simple: it’s about life after politics. One of the dirty secrets about many, if not most, congressmen and senators is that they like Washington, D.C., rhetoric notwithstanding. They want to stay in town after they leave (or lose) office. Once you’ve tasted the Capital of the Free World, do you really want to go back to Pierre, South Dakota? (Tom Daschle comes to mind…). It’s funny how many politicians, having made a career out of bashing War-Shing-Tun, don’t…seem…to…ever…leave.

I can’t blame them: I moved to Boston, and would be very happy to stay here. Places do grow on you. The problem comes, for politicians, when they have to find a job. For an ex-politician, there aren’t that many ‘straight paths’ to getting your next job: lobbyist and corporate board member are the easiest and the most lucrative.

But if you get a reputation as someone who opposes large business interests, what chance do you have of getting either of these types of jobs? Sometimes, the quid pro quo is very crude and direct (e.g., Billy Tauzin), but the Village’s political culture makes it clear what is acceptable. One should not be ‘populist’, or, heaven forbid, liberal.

It seems to me that an age limit is a much better way to prevent this. Throwing someone in his late fifties, who might have lots of bills to pay (mortgage, college educations), out of work is a sure-fire guarantee that he would be tempted by a quid pro quo arrangement.

Comments

  1. #1 BaldApe
    September 12, 2010

    But any defined exit time is an additional invitation for a justice to favor someone who could reward them later.

    Sorry, lifetime tenure is not a great system, but I suspect that changing it would be worse.

  2. #2 natual cynic
    September 12, 2010

    Term limits would seem to me to be more in line with the Founding Fathers ideals [especially Jeffersonian] of a group of citizen politicians. One that would go to Washington as true representatives of the people and then return to the people. As with many of their ideals, this is a different time and a different place. Still, the idea of a retired Scalia and Thomas is appealing. Make it 20 years.

  3. #3 Troublesome Frog
    September 12, 2010

    Throwing someone in his late fifties, who might have lots of bills to pay (mortgage, college educations), out of work is a sure-fire guarantee that he would be tempted by a quid pro quo arrangement.

    I’m pretty sure that the pension for a Supreme Court Justice is equal to their full salary at its highest point, so they really shouldn’t be worried about making ends meet any more than they did when they were working.

    The current salary for a SC Justice is pretty low given the opportunity cost, but $200K+ per year in guaranteed retirement cash should keep them from feeling like they need to become strippers.

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