The Atlantic

No Other Western Democracy Allows This

Only in America does so much power rest in the hands of elderly judges.
Source: Getty / The Atlantic

When the Framers of the Constitution debated the document’s careful system of checks and balances, they confronted a question that would only become more important over time: Should there be a mandatory retirement age for federal judges?

Alexander Hamilton argued against one. Writing in The Federalist Papers, he dismissed “the imaginary danger of a superannuated bench.” Hamilton won out, and the Constitution placed no term limits on the service of federal judges, including the men and (much later) women who would make up the Supreme Court.

More than two centuries later, the United States in its handling of lifetime appointments to its highest court, and the drawbacks of a “superannuated bench” have become ever more clear. Last Friday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the third over the judiciary into the tempest of a presidential election, and it has brought about a nightmare scenario for Democrats, who have long feared the possibility that a conservative would replace her progressive vote on the Supreme Court and shift the nation’s jurisprudence dramatically to the right. But it also serves as a reminder that only in the U.S. does the balance of so much national power hang on the ability of an 87-year-old jurist to hold out for a few more months against the ravages of disease and the inevitability of life’s natural course.

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