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Should Supreme Court justices be subject to term limits?

Are U.S. Supreme Court justices, who are appointed for life, serving too long -- with consequences the Constitution's framers never intended?

Roger Cramton, Cornell Law School's Stevens Professor of Law emeritus, asks this question in his provocative book, "Reforming the Court: Term Limits for Supreme Court Justices," edited with Paul D. Carrington, Chadwick Professor of Law at Duke University Law School. The book has just been published by Carolina Academic Press.

It can be harmful to the court when justices continue their professional duties for decades, wielding enormous power despite compromised physical or mental health, says Cramton, a former dean at Cornell Law School and former assistant attorney general under President Richard Nixon. Cramton notes that people on both sides of the political spectrum are starting to talk seriously about term limits for Supreme Court justices.

Additionally, some presidents get to sway the court's direction unduly by appointing justices reflecting their own political views, while other presidents are not afforded that opportunity (Nixon had three appointees, Carter none, he observes).

From 1789 to 1970 the average Supreme Court justice served close to 16 years and retired at about age 68, notes Cramton. But since 1970, the average tenure has risen to 25.5 years and the average age on leaving office has climbed to about 79. Indeed, no justice had left the court in more than 10 years until the death last September of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the retirement this year of Associate Justice Sandra Day O' Connor -- the longest period with no vacancy in the court's history, observes Cramton.

There may be a better way to serve the needs of both the courts and society, he says.

In 2005 Cramton and Carrington co-authored a nonpartisan proposal calling for term limits for Supreme Court justices that was discussed in The New York Times, USA Today and The National Law Journal after more than three dozen legal scholars around the country supported it. The proposal led to this book, which includes opinions by 20 leading constitutional law and federal courts scholars -- among them Cramton, on the constitutionality of reforming the Supreme Court by statute. Other essays examine the consequences of the increasingly long tenure of Supreme Court justices, present arguments for and against long tenure and look at innovative proposals for reform. The volume provides a comprehensive, balanced and compelling examination of a largely neglected but important subject, reviewers have noted.

Cramton, whose areas of expertise include legal ethics, the legal profession and conflict of laws and torts, was awarded in 2000 the American Bar Foundation's Research Award for lifetime scholarly contributions to research on law and government.

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