April 29, 2005

Cramton Leads Discussion on Supreme Court Developments

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Roger C. Cramton, dean emeritus of the Cornell Law School, headed an open panel discussion yesterday to talk about recent developments with the Supreme Court and to talk about his proposal for a Supreme Court Renewal Act to impose term limits on Supreme Court justices.

“The tendency of justices now is to stay and stay and stay in power until they no longer have the mental or physical capacity to fulfill their responsibilities,” Cramton said. He noted that the average tenure of justices averaged about 15 years until 1970, and since then it has been more like 26.

Although it is well known that justices will often hold off retirement from their lifetime appointments until a like-minded president is in power, Cramton says the evidence of “mental and physical decrepitude” potentially impacting decisions is too great to ignore. “Kings and queens have lost their power but the Supreme Court justices have not.”

He said this “ruling gerontology” of the judiciary is likely to be out of touch with the views of a younger and changing nation. It is also more and more common for aging and entrenched justices to let almost all of their opinions be written by clerks, just “going through the motions of the job.”

Inspired into action, Cramton and colleague Prof. Paul Carrington of Duke University School of Law drew up a proposal for a Supreme Court Renewal Act by Congress which would force the appointment of a new justice every two years. The justices would be cycled out in order, with each serving for a defined 18-year term. Cramton said the proposal “has the support of 45 of the leading constitutional scholars in the world,” and also pointed out that all of the states and almost all foreign nations have some version of term limits for high courts.

Cramton was introduced by Kevin Yeh ’07, treasurer of Societas, an undergraduate law society for the College of Arts and Sciences. Yeh jokingly thanked the retired professor for “being dragged out of his house” to address attendees. The society sponsored the talk to “get students away from the lecture format and into an open discussion” about current events in law.

A student attending the event asked Cramton if his proposal would disrupt the continuity of the court and leave it open to political pressures. Cramton responded that since there was no possibility for reappointment there was no further pressure to politicize opinions. He also pointed out that the current Court has been serving for 11 straight years, with the possibility that justices “are beginning to know each other too well.”

Discussion also turned to recent developments concerning the Supreme Court, including the controversy over the efforts of Republicans to block a filibuster of judicial appointments, gay rights, and the Terri Schiavo case, which Cramton called “a terrible mistake by the Republican Party.”

Regarding the appointments controversy, Cramton said “my sense, or hope, is that sense will prevail on both sides.” He said that though the constitution is vague on such an issue, “if the Republicans are changing procedural rules they will have the same technique used against them when Democrats are in power.”

Cramton, who had worked with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and has a home in Vermont near him, said that he has yet to share his proposal with Rehnquist, but noted that when he does “he probably won’t like it.”

Archived article by Steven Nelson
Sun Staff Writer