On October 25, 2023, the American Academy and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate co-hosted The Legislative Path to Supreme Court Reform. The event celebrated the release of a new publication from the Academy’s bipartisan U.S. Supreme Court Working Group, The Case For Supreme Court Term Limits, and included a discussion featuring Judge Patti Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale University, Professor Charles Fried of Harvard Law School, Boston Globe Senior Opinion Writer Kimberly Atkins Stohr, and Fix The Court Executive Director Gabe Roth.
The Academy’s work on this topic began in 2018, when it convened the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The Commission’s final report, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the Twenty-First Century, contains 31 recommendations, including 18- year term limits for Supreme Court Justices. The report argued that increasing polarization surrounding the court has been due in part to the fact that Justices today live far longer, and thus serve far longer, than the Framers are likely to have imagined. The Commission believed that moving toward a system of regular appointments and 18-year terms could restore the Founders’ vision and “move the Court toward a less partisan future.”
In 2022, the Academy assembled an accomplished, bipartisan working group of constitutional scholars and political scientists to create a roadmap for implementing this reform legislatively. The group’s deliberations culminated in the new report, The Case for Supreme Court Term Limits. Two of the event panelists, Akhil Reed Amar and Charles Fried, also served as members of the working group.
In a lively discussion moderated by Judge Patti Saris, the panelists explored why this reform is needed now and how it can be enacted by statute.
Akhil Reed Amar explained the working group’s proposal, noting, “strictly speaking, it’s not quite term limits. You are on the court for life. You have the title of Justice for life. Your salary cannot be diminished. But your job description changes after 18 years. It’s kind of a phased service: You are on the front bench for the first 18 years. And then you have Senior status thereafter.”
Charles Fried spoke about the constitutionality of the proposal: “There is no text in the constitution which mandates the opposite. It says you hold office during good behavior. But there’s no such office as a sitting supreme court justice. The office is as a judge. That is the office, and you have that for life.”
Kimberly Atkins Stohr reflected on her personal journey to embracing this reform: “If you had asked me maybe even three years ago about reforming the court, I was not in favor of term limits. The framers thought that life tenure would ensure independence. We’ve seen in real life how that’s not really how that has worked.”
Gabe Roth described the landscape of court reform legislation in the current Congress and tracked by Fix the Court: “There is some movement in Congress. For a very long time, there were no bills in congress on limiting life tenure at the Supreme Court. More recently, there have been three bills introduced that would institute prospective 18-year term limits.”
The panel also touched on the mechanics of term limits, the reform’s history of bipartisan support, and potential mechanisms to avoid Senate impasses that might interrupt the regularization of appointments that the proposal aims to achieve. The panel also responded to audience questions. In addition to an in-person audience, the event was streamed live on YouTube.
Learn more and view the event recording here.