Home Opinion OPINION: Tarnished legacies of Supreme Court justices cannot continue

OPINION: Tarnished legacies of Supreme Court justices cannot continue

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Justin Thompson, a senior studying journalism, argues that Supreme Court justices should not be nominated for life and they need more respect upon their death.

Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

The legacy of fearless morality, fiery dissent and equality for women that Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves behind means that her seat on the Supreme Court cannot possibly be filled. It will soon be occupied, yes, but no possible successor could hope to match the stamp of progress she left on the nation in the 27 years she spent in that chair. 

A champion of justice, her death leaves a massive hole not just in the Supreme Court’s bench, but in the nation’s conscience. So, it is disheartening that her passing is already being perceived by many not as a great national loss, but as an opportunity to bend the rules of government to their will. 

As it was when Antonin Scalia died in 2016, the impending firestorm concerning who will replace Ginsburg on the Supreme Court is going to be vengeful and entirely political. The situational similarities between the two appointments are striking. 

After Scalia’s death in February of 2016, Republican Senators succeeded in blocking the appointment of Merrick Garland, who President Obama picked to fill Scalia’s seat. They argued that in an election year, it was inappropriate for an outgoing president to nominate a judge who might alter the court’s political tilt.

But many of those same Republicans — led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — are singing a different tune this time around.

They now argue that President Trump should wield his authority to nominate a judge immediately so that the Republican-leaning Senate can confirm the appointment before November’s election.

No matter how many hairs McConnell and Republican Senators try to split, their hypocrisy is undeniable. 

It is inappropriate to look at the current storm clouds and the inevitable hurricane through a purely political lens — the roots of the problem run deeper than that.

The lifetime appointments bestowed upon Supreme Court justices are inappropriate because they lead to a morbid waiting game that distills the lives of the judges into political poker chips.  

The expectation that they will complete the entirety of their term means that judges feel pressured to remain on the bench even when declining health and deteriorating mental acuity suggest they step down.

If the overarching goal of the court is to ensure justice be done in the country’s most consequential cases, then isn’t it paramount to have the best jurists on the bench, judges who don’t feel like they have to be there?

Pete Buttigieg proposed an intriguing, alternative structure for the Supreme Court in 2019. He suggested that the court be composed of 15 judges. Five would represent the political leanings of one party, and five would represent the other party; those 10 would then select five more judges to fill the remaining seats. The five “wild card” judges would ensure that partisanship in the court is kept to a minimum.

If the plan were bolstered by term limits, one 20 year term for each judge sounds appropriate. Maybe then a few of the court’s most glaring structural problems would be solved. 

There are deep-seated problems with the way the Supreme Court is assembled, and they need to be addressed soon. Scalia’s death and the refusal by Republican Senators to give Merrick Garland so much as a hearing, let alone a vote, exposed the flaws in the system. The impending chaos surrounding Ginsburg’s successor will only crystallize those flaws. 

It’s a terrible irony. Scalia and Ginsburg both spent their careers speaking up for fairness and some kind of harmony bigger than politics. Practitioners of their own words, they forged a deep friendship across ideological lines — but their deaths were politicized to no end. 

Madness cannot continue to accompany the deaths of Supreme Court justices. It doesn’t honor their legacies; it only tarnishes them. 

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