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Discussion of term limits for U.S. Supreme Court justices at the recent National Conference on Appellate Justice had its ironies. Newly confirmed Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who dropped in on a cocktail party at the Washington conference earlier this month, once supported term limits, but no longer does. A conference panelist, Duke Law School Professor Paul Carrington, had called for legislation that requires the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice every two years. Under his proposal, the nine most recently appointed justices would sit as the Supreme Court. Justices appointed earlier who wanted to remain justices would be accorded senior status. They would continue at full pay, would fill in for justices who were ill and would perform other still-undefined duties. The legislation would not affect the status of justices seated before the law passed. Roger C. Cramton, an emeritus professor at Cornell Law School, and Carrington, have drawn mixed reaction to their co-authored term-limit legislation, known as the Supreme Court Renewal Act. According to Carrington’s Web site, more than 40 people endorse the law, which was first proposed in July. They include former American Bar Association presidents, former state chief justices and many academics. Roberts changes mind When an associate counsel in the Reagan White House, Roberts wrote a memo in October 1983 that supported 15-year judicial term limits, “to ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence.” But he told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation on Sept. 13 that “that would be one of those memos that I no longer agree with.” That doesn’t surprise Carrington. He compares justices to cardinals who sit in a Greek templelike structure built for them by former President and one-time Justice William Howard Taft, who also gave them the power to choose their cases. “No one living today would ever consider life tenure for any official,” Carrington said. “The founders never contemplated the longevity we enjoy today . . . .Many lawyers and federal judges feel that removing life tenure for Supreme Court justices somehow diminishes their power and status. Where I find the law an easy sell is the League of Women Voters. They care about democracy and public institutions, but they’re not hung about by the status of judges.” Carrington added that if Supreme Court justices were appointed on a regular basis it would likely make confirmation hearings less caustic and partisan. University of Chicago Law School Professor David Currie declined an invitation to endorse the proposed statute. He said it attempts a statutory end-run around the Constitution, instead of amending it, which he would also oppose. “After 18 years, it deprives them of all their duties, which is the same as kicking them off . . . .I think federal judges ought to have life tenure because that independence allows them to be fearless . . . .Eighteen-year terms are not bad, but I like lifetime even better.”

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