*This is part one of a three part series.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about term limits for Supreme Court justices. Norm Ornstein brought renewed attention to the issue in May. Erwin Chemerinsky has proposed term limits in his new book, The Case Against the Supreme Court. And a recent poll asked about it, and shows nearly 70% of the public thinks term limits are a good idea.
I was invited to write a blog post on this topic because I have a short article forthcoming in the December issue of The Federal Lawyer, which also makes a case for term limits. But unlike Ornstein and Chemerinsky, my primary focus isn’t the politics or ideology of the Court. My focus is on the 1968 presidential election.
In a nutshell, a confluence of circumstances turned the 1968 election into a watershed for the Supreme Court. The newly elected Nixon was suddenly able to appoint four new justices to the Court—in his first term—transforming the progressive Warren Court into the moderately conservative Burger Court, and setting a trajectory (through the appointment of William Rehnquist) for the much more conservative Court that we have today. (You’ll have to read the article when it comes out, to get my full take on the story.)
Yes, this transformation of the Court—politically and ideologically—has been deeply troubling for progressives over the last 40 years. But it would be a mistake, when making an argument for term limits, to spend too much time complaining about the longevity of the Court’s rightward bent. Imposing term limits will require a constitutional amendment, which will require support from both sides. And you can’t get support from both sides if you’re complaining about something that one side really, really likes.