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Port: Would term limits for the Supreme Court make things better or worse?

Term limits would mean each new president making far more appointments to the court than ever before in history. Is that likely to make the court less ideological, or more?

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File photo of the U.S. Supreme Court building is seen in Washington.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Files
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MINOT, N.D. — For decades the American left has relied on the courts reading new "rights" into the constitution, and not voters and legislatures making law, to deliver the policy outcomes they desire.

Then the Supreme Court threw a monkey wrench into the works. They struck down the Roe v. Wade precedent, noting, correctly, that the Constitution is neutral on the question of abortion, and that if Americans want certain rights to be in the law, then they ought to write the law in a way that recognizes them.

Supreme Court ruling on West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency demonstration in Washington
Climate activists participate in a demonstration Thursday following the West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency ruling outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Sarah Silbiger / Reuters

The left has not handled well this new edict to use democracy, and not judicial fiat, to make policy. They're out for retribution on the Supreme Court, and one of the avenues they're proceeding down is term limits.

The Supreme Court Tenure Establishment and Retirement Modernization Act, sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat who once had to be reassured that Guam, the Pacific island, wouldn't capsize from overpopulation ( I'm not joking ), would see each new president appointing two new justices to the Supreme Court during a four-year term.

One appointment would happen in the first year of a term; a second in the third year. Upon each new appointment, the justice with the longest tenure on the court would be moved to senior status, where they would still have some official duties, including filling in should a vacancy occur on the court.

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Johnson argues his bill is needed to address a "legitimacy crisis."

The "legitimacy" being called in question because the lawfully appointed justices have issued some landmark opinions our progressive friends don't like so much.

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But to the extent there is a problem with the Supreme Court becoming too polarized along ideological lines, would Johnson's legislation fix the problem?

I'm not so sure. Would making appointments to the court an automatically granted prize to be won in each new presidential election make the court less partisan? Or more partisan? Currently, those appointments are only a potential prize, hinging on whether a vacancy on the court occurs with a given president's term, but most presidents end up appointing a couple of justices.

Only four presidents in history — Jimmy Carter, Andrew Johnson, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison — served in that office without making an appointment (though Harrison was in office for just 31 days, and Taylor just a little more than a year).

Frank Roosevelt appointed nine justices, though he was elected to four terms. Donald Trump appointed three justices, but his four predecessors appointed two each.

Not counting President Joe Biden's not-yet-completed term, in which he's appointed one justice so far, we've had 45 presidents in American history who have appointed a total of 121 justices for an average of almost 2.7 appointments per president.

Remember, 21 of those presidents served two terms, too.

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Johnson's bill would guarantee four appointments to a two-term president.

I'm not against some form of term limits for the court, but Johnson's legislation would make the court even more of a "spoil of war" for the politicians than it already is.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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