The Case for Supreme Court Term Limits

A Letter from the President of the American Academy

The Academy’s work on issues related to Supreme Court reform dates back to 2018, with the establishment of the bipartisan Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The Commission’s 2020 final report, Our Common Purpose: Re­inventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, recommended term limits as a means to depoliticize the appointment process and realign the Court with the framers’ expectations. In doing so, the Commission became part of a robust, decades-long discourse on the drawbacks of life tenure and proposals for reform. The U.S. Supreme Court Working Group convened in the spring of 2022 to address key questions left unresolved both by the Commission and by existing literature and to lay out a comprehensive, nonpartisan path forward.

As this work progressed, a series of major decisions reshaped public perceptions of the Supreme Court. The legal and cultural significance of these rulings, combined with the fact that they have occurred in an era of increasing partisanship and social distrust, has made debates about the future of the Court more politically fraught than they might have been even a few years ago. Increasingly, Americans’ views on the Court depend on their political party affiliation and their ideological agreement with recent decisions. All of this has undoubtedly made nonpartisan Court reform more challenging to achieve.

In light of these developments, the Academy is deeply grateful to all of the members of the working group for the thoughtfulness, dedication, and bipartisan spirit they consistently brought to this process. Through many months of deliberation, these impressive scholars and practitioners remained cognizant of—but not influenced by—the context in which they worked. They were gracious in sharing their time and expertise, and the consensus they reached, which is outlined in the pages that follow, will serve to strengthen our constitutional democracy for the good of all Americans.

Special thanks go to Seth Davis of UC Berkeley School of Law, Daniel Epps of Washington University School of Law, Caroline Fredrickson of Georgetown Law School and the Brennan Center for Justice, and Kermit Roosevelt III of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, who took the lead in drafting this paper. The Academy is grateful also to Judge Diane Wood, who served both on the Commission and on the working group, and whose guidance has been invaluable to both.

Thank you to the cochairs of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship—Danielle Allen of Harvard University, Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Eric Liu of Citizen University—for their leadership and support as the Academy works to advance the recommendations in the Our Common Purpose report.

Thank you also to the Academy staff who served this working group and contributed to this publication, including Zachey Kliger, Jessica Lieberman, Peter Robinson, Phyllis Bendell, and Scott Raymond.

In addition to the working group members listed in this publication, there were other scholars and experts who participated in working group meetings but have asked not to be credited. In many instances, their perspectives helped to shape this paper, and the Academy thanks them for their contributions.

Finally, the Academy’s ongoing work to advance the Our Common Purpose recommendations would not be possible without the generous support of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the Suzanne Nora Johnson and David G. Johnson Foundation, the Clary Family Charitable Fund, Alan and Lauren Dachs, Sara Lee Schupf and the Lubin Family Foundation, Joan and Irwin Jacobs, David M. Rubenstein, and Patti Saris. Many thanks to these supporters for their belief in this work and for their ongoing commitment to strengthening American democracy.

David W. Oxtoby
President, American Academy of Arts and Sciences