Monday, September 7, 2015

An Aging Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States, the most powerful federal court in all of the US, is composed of nine members with lifelong tenure. For some background information, their current ages range from 55 to 82, with the average age of the justices being 75 at the end of the next president’s first term.  Some, like the advocate group Fix the Court, believe this aging Court needs multiple reforms.

Fix the Court specifically believes firmly in a new system where Supreme Court Justices serve 18-year terms. Even Alexander Hamilton noted in Federalist 79 the dangers of a “superannuated [out-dated] bench.”  Fix the Court specifically cites the high percentage of 5-4 rulings under Chief Justice Roberts as a reason for change.

But close-cut decisions do not necessarily indicate a “partisan” bench. Just “this past spring… Chief Justice Roberts [a conservative] voted with the four liberal justices to save Obamacare” and that Justice Thomas voted against the Conservatives, “permitting Texas to refuse to print Confederate flags on license plates” (S.M.).

It is also necessary to mention that an infusion of new members will, at the very least, provide new views and beliefs in the Supreme Court. But is this beneficial? Do fresher voices provide more impartiality, more justice? What even is justice? Is it Christian values? Is justice pro-life or pro-choice? If justice has a dynamic definition, does it not make sense to have a similarly dynamic Supreme Court?

And, perhaps most importantly, are we high school students even capable of responding to these questions fairly?

Link to the article here.


Anna Joshi said...

Although I don’t believe that fresher voices will necessarily provide more justice, I do believe that more diversity on the bench will have an effect. Currently, out of the nine justices, three are women and six are men. Furthermore, three of the justices are Jews, while the other six justices are Catholics. With gender and religion alone, there is a clear disparity of who is being represented on the bench. When asked to comment on this disparity, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to ever serve, stated, “We have a bunch of lawyers on the court, none of whom have done any serious criminal defense work, all of them prosecutors, only one civil rights lawyer, and only one justice who has practiced law alone.” With her comment on the lack of variation in the positions and careers, I can only wonder what other lacks of representation there are in the court. Although this lack of representation doesn’t seem like a huge deal, since Supreme Court Justices are expected to rule fairly, it is known that many are predisposed to certain beliefs and views—dating as far back as 1803 when John Adams packed the court with Federalists before an Anti-Federalist presidency. With this in mind, I do believe that it is necessary for the Supreme Court to be dynamic; specifically, I believe this idea of change should begin with changing the ratio of representation to fit the various backgrounds and beliefs of our nation today.

Carolyn Ku said...

The changing dynamics of the Supreme Court should not directly affect justice because the Supreme Court does not rule on the basis of justice--it rules on whether or not something is constitutional. However, the views of the Supreme Court justices does affect how the Court interprets the Constitution. Fresher voices may not provide impartiality because justices are often partial in how they believe the Constitution should be interpreted (either loose constructionists or strict constructionists.) Replacing justices more often would only affect the ratio of loose constructionists to strict constructionists in the Supreme Court.

Jared said...

I agree with Anna that more diversity on the bench will have an effect; however, I don't think that the Supreme Court term should be changed from lifetime to 18 years. It would be great to have a Supreme Court of justices who represent all the different groups of American citizens but it's not possible with 9 people, and that number should not be expanded. If we had elections every 18 years for the Supreme Court, it would become less reliable. People could vote out a justice just because they did not agree with their ruling, even if it was Constitutional. Having lifetime terms makes the Court as reliable as it can be because they can rule in the way they truly interpret the Constitution, instead of a crowd-pleasing vote at the conclusion of a term. Just like any part of government though, there will always be flaws. Just like Anna pointed out, President John Adams tried "packing" the court with Federalists before he left office so that his party would maintain some form of power over the presidency. However, having a balance of political parties in the Senate can prevent this from occurring again since they confirm appointments. The Supreme Court may be lagging behind current politics in some issues, but as justices are replaced over time the current way, that will be fixed.

Justin Chan said...

Thank you Daniel for your original post. I agree with Jared's statement that electing Supreme Court Justices will become less reliable. Having fresher voices, which basically means a more balanced representation of each political and social constituency, will also create its own problems, essentially the opposite of problems now. I believe that it is our social and economic biases that make us believe that the Supreme Court must have fresher voices, and like Jared said, "that will be fixed" in due time. It is true that the justices may vote in favor of a ruling based on his/her party affiliation; however, with old age, these experienced justices understand at least consciously not to rule based on affiliation, and I believe that this is good enough. Maybe it is my psychology class that influences my beliefs and analysis of this post, but I believe that confirmation bias may be at play here. Many need to see that there are substantial cases in which justices have voted for the other "side."

Here is an interesting article/graph to show how often justices vote together:

When reading this article, one can see arguments on both sides of the spectrum. There is evidence that shows that justices are more inclined to vote for their political party; however, the article also discusses about the unrepresentative close call cases, rather than the unanimous or near-unanimous ones. Justice Breyer is an interesting justice to read about in the article to understand more in depth about the debate between the effect of one's political affiliations towards one's ruling. How do you interpret this article?

Daniel Jun said...

In response to Justin Chan

The link you provided did indeed give new resources and perspectives. It is true that the media tends to focus on the highly contentious cases, but there is a reason for this: the proportion of close-cut cases to less contentious ones is RISING. However, that could just be a sign that politics is becoming more complicated, especially as video technology and the Internet are becoming more commonplace, although this is just my personal opinion.

The article you provided does not change my original opinion that the Supreme Court should not have the kind of radical reform that "Fix the Court" desires. I personally believe that the closely cut cases are simply par for the course, just another neat correlation that does not signify anything particularly significant.

The Justices tend to vote with their political side because they tend to share more ideals with their side than their political opposites. I view the article as interesting, but ultimately trivial: political factions exist for a reason, and the Justices vote outside of their political spectrum because they are humans and not physical manifestations of their political side's ideals.

Monica Mai said...

I agree with Anna that there is a lack of representation in the Supreme Court. However, I think that this lack of representation can affect the rulings. I'm thinking back to the Marshall Court and the Taney Court, and both of those courts set entirely different tones of governance for their era. But, if they're the Supreme Court, how can that be so? The justices' decisions will consciously or unconsciously, be inevitably based off their biases because those justices have their own truths and definition of justice. This is a little bit more rhetorical, but we can't really define justice. A couple centuries ago, the "justice" in America oppressed and dehumanized slaves. Those in power define justice, so the interpretation of justice is always changing. Everyone's pursuit of justice is different, and so I think that having a wider representation of voices is important. We need more diverse and younger voices so that the rulings are as "just" and representative as possible. So, fresher voices won't necessarily provide more impartiality, but I think it will be more effective in the pursuit of justice. If we, high school students, aren't capable of answering these questions fairly, then no one is. Everyone has their own truths and there is no absolute right or fair or better truth, so high school students' opinions could be just as fair as that of a 60 year old man's.