There’s a limit

Supreme court justices should have age restrictions


On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, reversing a precedent of rights that had been upheld for nearly 50 years. This decision is one that many Americans believe to be a step backwards, and seeing as most of those who made the decision are over the age of 50, that belief may not be inaccurate.

Being a Supreme Court Justice shouldn’t be a lifetime position. Many Justices don’t retire from their position until they reach an age around 70 years old, and there is scientific evidence that suggests that many individuals of this age are not fit for such an influential position due to cognitive aging. Lifetime terms for judges aren’t supported by the Constitution, and any democratic government position needs rotation, otherwise a nation’s leadership and ideas become stagnant.

Many of those who argue against Supreme Court term limits claim that they come from a place of unjust ageism. However, science suggests that cognitive aging is a real threat to effective leadership. The Mcknight Brain Institute describes cognitive aging as, “a natural process in which older adults typically experience a decline in many functions, such as memory, that can negatively impact their quality of life.” According to the CDC, cognitive decline affects one in nine adults. Psychologist Alan S. Kaufman agrees that cognitive aging should be a factor in determining a judge’s ability to do their job.

“U.S. Supreme Court justices and other federal judges are, effectively, appointed for life, without checking potential cognitive decline,” Kaufman said. “Yet, there is a century of research on aging and intelligence with empirical findings showing the vulnerability of abilities like reasoning and speed to the normal aging process. Even the maintained ability of crystallized knowledge has been shown to decline steadily after about age 70 or 75 in cross-sectional studies…”

In addition to current day science suggesting against the lifetime term policy, the Constitution doesn’t support it either. Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Judicial branch, never explicitly states that a justice’s term should be lifetime. However, that is how it has been interpreted for centuries.

A notable line from Article III states that, “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.” Which is a fairly vague statement. “Good Behaviour” most likely refers to avoiding criminal actions. At the time of the Constitution’s ratification, the average lifespan of white men in America was 38 years old, so it is not likely that the Founding Fathers considered aging and cognitive decline in these rules. However, it seems that a decline in cognitive functions would fit the bill for what could pose a risk to “good Behaviour.”

Not only do life-lasting terms threaten effective leadership, but unbiased leadership as well. The current oldest Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, is 74 years old and has held his position since he was appointed by George H. W. Bush in 1991. Thomas was chosen for his widely known conservative beliefs, although the Supreme Court is meant to be a politically unbiased branch. Bush was one of the more controversial American presidents, and has since passed away. However, his ideals have been upheld for nearly 30 years after his presidential term ended, and four years after his death, through Thomas’ seat in the court.

More recently, former President Donald Trump appointed three supreme court justices in the span of a little over three years, which has dramatically skewed the court in favor of conservative views. According to, the average amount of years that each Justice serves is 16 years. This means it can be expected that a third of the Supreme Court will be skewed in this way for about 12 years after Trump’s term ended, and possibly even longer if these judges follow in Clarence Thomas’s footsteps.

The Supreme Court is the only branch of the U.S. government that doesn’t require term limits. Since we have term limits for presidents to ensure a variety of leadership and ideas, the same should apply for those who are in a position where they can radically change the law.