OPINION: SCOTUS lifetime appointments have outlived their purpose

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(File Photo by Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

The passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this weekend has already reignited the flames of political discourse, the culmination of decades of bitter dispute surrounding appointment of Supreme Court justices.

The analogous nomination and subsequent refusal to even hear the nomination of Merrick Garland in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency makes the politics surrounding this process more petty than ever. In the current political landscape, it’s clear there are hypocrites on both sides and the process has been politicized nearly beyond repair.

The current conversation around Supreme Court nominations is destructive to democracy, and it is past time something substantial is done about it. The nomination narrative is not only divisive, but unsustainable. In the coming years, the court will see reform, or contribute to the further degradation of political discourse and democracy in our country.

While several Democratic candidates voiced support for the following reforms to the Supreme Court last year, it is in all parties’ interest long term to change the dynamic of the game, rather than bet on the current system that is undemocratically beholden to chance.

The establishment of lifetime appointment, given good behavior, has its basis in the desire to give law immunity from public opinion, however the practice has long outlived its usefulness.

Continuing to pretend the court is an apolitical institution is at odds with reality. The span and scope of the influence individual justices have has increased drastically over time — far beyond the imagination of those who fashioned the institution.

Historically, the average number of years that justices served was 16, according to the Supreme Court website.

However, looking at the most recent retirees or deaths, Justice Ginsburg served 27 years (1993-2020), Justice Anthony Kennedy, 30 years (1988-2018), Justice Antonin Scalia, served 30 (1986-2016) and Justice John Paul Stevens, 35 years (1975-2010).

With the consequences of judicial appointments potentially lasting three decades, it is impossible for either party to approach appointments with any semblance of rationality, the stakes are too high for either party to hand over a seat to the other without a fight.

In many ways, the length of judicial tenure gives individual justices more power than any individual president, and by extension can give any one president inequitable power through appointing them.

A presidential election is pivotal enough without an unspecified number of Supreme Court nominations in play as well.

While establishing a reasonable term limit on justices would not entirely take the political swing of presidential elections the court has, it would limit the length and potential impact of each individual appointment, as well as ease the ever-looming panic on both sides around the replacement of current justices.

Another method by which the power of an individual justice may be limited is by increasing the size of the bench.

While it would be difficult to do this while maintaining a delicate political balance, there is already precedent for this. At its inception, the Supreme Court consisted of six justices, but was expanded to nine by the Judiciary Act of 1869.

The way it currently stands, nine justices is simply not enough to be representative of our diverse, populous democracy that has grown exponentially since the 19th century, and with it the scope of the legal landscape.

While the issues in the United States politics extend far beyond even the substantial power of the Supreme Court, reform would go a long way towards ensuring a more stable, rational democracy.

Rebecca Vrbas senior in mass communications and the culture editor for the Collegian. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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My name is Rebecca Vrbas. I’m the culture editor at the Collegian and a junior in journalism and mass communications. My hobbies include obsessing over an ever-expanding pool of musicals and cats (not the musical). I love writing because of the infinite intricacy of language, as well as its power to cultivate a sense of community through sharing experiences.