July 5, 2013

In an interview with Reuters  this week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—who turned 80 this year—emphasized her good health and vowed to resist liberal pressure to retire from the bench. Here’s more:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In her interview, Ginsburg referred to past liberal commentary and predicted, “That’s going to start up again.”

Brushing off political calculations, she said, “It really has to be, ‘Am I equipped to do the job?’ … I was so pleased that this year I couldn’t see that I was slipping in any respect.” She said she remains energized by her work as the senior liberal, a position she has held since 2010 when Justice John Paul Stevens retired, and calls being a justice “the best job in the world for a lawyer.”

On one end, if Justice Ginsburg feels equipped to handle the job for another 10 years—she cites Stevens, who retired at 90, as example—then she has every right to stay. If there’s anything else worth saying, it’s that the entire conservation over whether Ginsburg should stay or go highlights the problem of lifetime judicial appointments, especially to the Supreme Court. Depending on what happens in the 2016 presidential election, the future of the country—its direction on issues ranging from labor organizing to reproductive rights—rests on the career judgment of a single person. You can hold a tremendous amount of respect for Ginsburg and still see this as a problem for governance and the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

Indeed, lifetime tenure encourages behavior that isn’t ideal for an institution like the court, which is supposed to be removed from partisan politics. To wit, the current arrangement pushes presidents to look for younger, ideological candidates to fill vacancies—as was the case with Samuel Alito—in an effort to game the system and ensure maximum influence.

What we need are term limits for judicial appointees—from district and appeals court judges to Supreme Court justices. Of course, given the heavy lifting involved—a constitutional amendment—and the current composition of Congress, this just isn’t possible. What’s more, no one in either party will want to give up the possibility of securing big judicial victories through partisan politics. But for the rest of us, eliminating some of the randomness of which party gets to appoint judges—and avoiding large swings in public policy—is a good idea.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.