One of the (many) drawbacks of partisan judicial elections is that strong, knowledgeable, and experienced incumbents are at risk of being removed from the bench based solely on party affiliation. But the reverse is also true: in jurisdictions where judges are unaffiliated and have life tenure, it is often difficult to create any turnover in the judicial ranks — and when turnover does happen, it can happen all at once.
This article in the Providence Journal considers the case of Rhode Island’s supreme court, in which the youngest member is 68 and the oldest in his eighties. There is likely to be some radical turnover coming in the next few years as the current justices retire. It will present a special opportunity for whoever is governor as vacancies, but it also raises important questions about whether one governor should benefit from what could be seen as fortuitous timing.
These are the same questions that are routinely raised at the federal level, thus far without a clear answer.
That was the recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Yovino v. Rizo, a case decided at the end of February. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had issued its opinion, which included the vote of Judge Stephen Reinhardt, eleven days after Reinhardt passed away in March 2018. The Ninth Circuit panel justified the decision to include Reinhardt’s vote by noting:
“Prior to his death, Judge Reinhardt fully participated in this case and authored this opinion. The majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed by the en banc court prior to his death.”
The Supreme Court disagreed, explaining that federal judges “are appointed for life, not for eternity.”
Donald Scarinci has a nice breakdown of the opinion and the underlying case in The Observer.
A new poll conducted by researchers at Penn State University has found that the U.S. Supreme Court continues to enjoy high levels of public legitimacy, notwithstanding the belief by many respondents that Justices should not serve on the Court for life.
The linked story contains additional information, including many comments on the Court from respondents. Ignore the idiotic headline about “Trump’s America,” which seems de rigeur for all mainstream media stories these days, even if (as here) they have nothing to do with the President. The poll itself is worth noting.