By Heather Brown


MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Antonin Scalia was the longest serving justice on the current Supreme Court when he passed away on Saturday. President Ronald Reagan appointed him and the U.S. Senate confirmed him in 1986, giving Scalia 30 influential years on the bench.

The record for longest tenure is held by Justice William Douglas, who retired in 1975 – months after he suffered a debilitating stroke. He served 36 years.

So, why do Supreme Court justices serve life terms? Good Question.

The average tenure for the first 20 Supreme Court justices was 15 years, when the life expectancy was closer to 40. In the past generation, that tenure now averages more than 26 years.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 66 percent of Americans support a 10 year term limit for Supreme Court justices.

The U.S. Constitution says federal judges, “Shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.”

“The theory that the constitutional framers had was that with the lifetime appointment, they would be able to rise above politics,” David Schultz, a constitutional law expert at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said. “They’re supposed to not be watching the election returns, not following what the people necessarily say, but doing what the law requires and what’s supposed to be right.”

But, some say the system need to evolve with the times.

“It’s not fair to the people,” one St. Paul woman said. “People are changing, times are changing and the system needs to change with the times as well.”

According to Schultz, 37 states, including Minnesota, elect their judges.

“Does that mean the states have a better way to do things?” he said. “Not necessarily, because we know that state courts are heavily politicized.”

Most state have terms limits for their Supreme Court justices and some have mandatory retirement ages. Only Rhode Island allows its state Supreme Court judges to stay for life.

“The U.S. constitution was written in 1787. All states’ constitutions have been rewritten since and they reflect a different sets of judgments,” Schultz said

Federal judges can be impeached, but it’s only happened 15 times since the early 1800s and it’s usually because they’ve been charged with some kind of felony. No Supreme Court justice has ever been impeached, but it’s been threatened.

Heather Brown