The Hill: Democratic senators introduce bill establishing Supreme Court term limits

By Nick Robertson

A group of Democratic senators introduced a bill Thursday that would radically change the makeup of the Supreme Court, amid ongoing concerns over court ethics and its increasingly conservative makeup.

The legislation would appoint a new Supreme Court justice every two years, with that justice hearing every case for 18 years before stepping back from the bench and only hearing a “small number of constitutionally required cases.”

“The Supreme Court is facing a crisis of legitimacy that is exacerbated by radical decisions at odds with established legal precedent, ethical lapses of sitting justices, and politicization of the confirmation process,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said in a statement.

“This crisis has eroded faith and confidence in our nation’s highest court. Fundamental reform is necessary to address this crisis and restore trust in the institution.”

Only the nine most recently appointed justices would hear appellate cases, which make up a bulk of the court’s work. All living justices would participate in a smaller subset of cases under the court’s “original jurisdiction,” such as disputes between states or with foreign officials.

The bill was introduced by Sens. Booker, Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and it was co-sponsored by Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Calls for Supreme Court reform grew louder this year after ProPublica revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas received hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of perks from conservative political donors. Further investigations have uncovered multiple significant and undisclosed gifts from politically connected friends over his time as a federal judge.

Justice Samuel Alito also took a luxury vacation paid for by an influential conservative donor while in the judiciary, another investigation found earlier this year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill earlier this year along party lines that would require the Supreme Court to create and abide by a code of ethics. Unlike lower courts, Supreme Court judges are not beholden to an official ethics code.

“An organized scheme by right-wing special interests to capture and control the Supreme Court, aided by gobs of billionaire dark money flowing through the confirmation process and judicial lobbying, has resulted in an unaccountable Court out of step with the American people,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

“Term limits and biennial appointments would make the Court more representative of the public and lower the stakes of each justice’s appointment, while preserving constitutional protections for judicial independence.

“As Congress considers multiple options to restore the integrity of this scandal-plagued Court, our term limits bill should be front and center as a potential solution,” he added.

Attempts to reform the Supreme Court have been denounced by both Republicans in Congress and by some members of the court, namely Thomas and Alito.

Alito argued earlier this year that Congress does not have the authority to force any reform on the court without a constitutional amendment.

“I know this is a controversial view, but I’m willing to say it,” Alito told The Wall Street Journal. “No provision in the Constitution gives them the authority to regulate the Supreme Court — period.”

But Whitehouse’s office argued in Wednesday’s statement that the Constitution allows Congress to regulate how the court handles appellate cases from lower courts. That’s why all justices would still weigh in on “original jurisdiction” cases, avoiding the constitutional hang-up.

Trust in the Supreme Court remains near all-time lows, according to national opinion polling. A Gallup poll last month found that just 41 percent of Americans approve of how the Supreme Court is doing its job, with 58 percent disapproving.

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