Lifetime Appointments: Keeping Judges Independent

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Federalist Papers" by Alexander Hamilton. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Why do judges get lifetime appointments? Are there any exceptions to being a judge for life?

A lifetime appointment is given to federal judges to help keep them independent and out of the politics of elections. As long as they don’t do something egregious, their jobs are safe.

Keep reading to understand the rationale for lifetime appointments.

Independence Through Lifetime Appointments

Given its crucial function, and judges’ comparative lack of enforcement power, it was important that the judiciary be independent from the executive and legislative branches.

This was to ensure that these latter branches wouldn’t be able to use either military or police force (in the case of the executive) or financial incentives and threats (in the case of the legislature) to sway judicial decisions. This is why the Constitution mandates that judicial salaries cannot be reduced during a judge’s time of service, thereby removing the possibility of legislators blackmailing judges to obtain favorable rulings.

Most importantly, judges were to serve lifetime appointments, provided that they maintained “good behavior” on the bench. Absent any egregious offenses like soliciting bribes, which would violate the Good Behavior Clause, judicial appointments would be permanent.

(Shortform note: Impeachment by Congress of federal judges has proven exceedingly rare. As of 2020, only 15 judges—and zero Supreme Court justices—have been impeached, most of them on charges related to bribery and making false statements.)

There are good reasons for this. Judges were meant to make their rulings solely on the Constitution, not for political considerations. If they had to be renominated and re-confirmed, they might feel the need to curry favor with Congress and the president, which could exert a corrupting influence on their jurisprudence. Likewise, if they had to stand for direct election by the people, they might improperly make popular opinion—not constitutional law—the basis of their rulings.

Lifetime Appointments: Keeping Judges Independent

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  • The genius of the founding fathers in how they designed the United States Constitution
  • Why it was critical for the United States to form a union rather than stay separated as colonies
  • How Alexander Hamilton anticipated social issues that are still relevant today

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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