With the debate over Supreme Court reform taking center stage in the 2020 election after the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, three members of the House of Representatives on Tuesday will introduce a bill to establish term limits for Supreme Court justices.
Democrats Ro Khanna (Calif.), Don Beyer (Va.) and Joe Kennedy III (Mass.) unveiled the bill, the Supreme Court Term Limits and Regular Appointments Act, on Friday. If passed, the act would institute regular appointments to the Supreme Court every two years, with new justices serving for nonrenewable 18-year terms. After 18 years, appointees would become “senior justices” able to temporarily rejoin the court in the event of an unexpected vacancy. Although the current eight justices would be exempted, the two-year appointment cycle would take effect immediately, without waiting for them to retire.
Gabe Roth of Fix the Court, a nonpartisan organization which has been advocating for term limits and other changes to the court since its founding in 2014, lauded the proposal as a “better way – and one the majority of the country already supports” – to appoint justices to the high court. “Regular appointments can reduce the contentiousness of nominations and result in a bench that’s still independent and countermajoritarian,” Roth said.
The bill is the first attempt to institute term limits via statute, as opposed to constitutional amendment. Article III of the Constitution gives Congress broad authority to regulate the federal judiciary, but it also provides that federal judges will serve during “good behavior.” This phrase is widely read as requiring life tenure, and scholars remain divided over whether Congress can limit that tenure via legislation alone.
Tuesday’s introduction will place the bill squarely in the middle of fervent discussion of Supreme Court reform amid the 2020 presidential race. Republicans appear to be lining upbehind President Donald Trump’s effort to fill Ginsburg’s seat this fall. If that effort succeeds, some Democrats are threatening to support measures to add justices to the bench (known as “court packing”) if they take the Senate and Joe Biden wins the White House in November. Biden has not come out in support or opposition to these measures, limiting his public comments on the court to calls for a moratorium on replacing Ginsburg until after the election.