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Ginsburg Resisting Retirement Pressure

Image: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Liberal leaders want Ruth Bader Ginsburg to retire so President Obama can appoint her successor. She wants to hang around another decade.

Reuters (“Exclusive: Supreme Court’s Ginsburg vows to resist pressure to retire“):

At age 80, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing, says she is in excellent health, even lifting weights despite having cracked a pair of ribs again, and plans to stay several more years on the bench.

In a Reuters interview late on Tuesday, she vowed to resist any pressure to retire that might come from liberals who want to ensure that Democratic President Barack Obama can pick her successor before the November 2016 presidential election.

[...]

The justice, who survived two serious bouts with cancer, in 1999 and 2009, is keeping up a typically busy summer of travel, at home and abroad, beginning next week with a trip to Paris. Ginsburg said she was back to her usual weight-lifting routine and recently had good results from a bone density scan.

Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and can be a president’s most enduring legacy. Disputes over many social dilemmas come down to 5-4 votes, as was seen in the recently completed term on gay marriage and voting rights. A retirement decision rests with an individual justice, but history is rife with tensions between aging justices and anxious presidents. Ginsburg, the eldest justice on an ideologically divided court, was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Political pressure is an age-old backdrop to Supreme Court appointments, and for Ginsburg it is likely to accelerate before the November 2014 congressional elections that could alter the Democratic dominance of the Senate.

[...]

Brushing off political calculations, she said, “It really has to be, ‘Am I equipped to do the job?’ … I was so pleased that this year I couldn’t see that I was slipping in any respect.” She said she remains energized by her work as the senior liberal, a position she has held since 2010 when Justice John Paul Stevens retired, and calls being a justice “the best job in the world for a lawyer.”

She has previously said she wanted her tenure to at least match the nearly 23 years of Justice Louis Brandeis, which would get her to April 2016, and said she had a new “model” in Justice Stevens, who retired at age 90 after nearly 35 years on the bench.

Reinforcing the message that she might not leave before her health requires it, she mused of another former colleague, “I wonder if Sandra regrets stepping down when she did?”

If I had my druthers, Justices would serve 20-year terms rather than indefinitely. A long, fixed term would both assure for an independent judiciary and solve several problems with lifetime appointments.  It’s absurd to have 90-year-olds deciding the most important public policy issues and makes an already undemocratic institution even moreso to have people appointed by Gerald Ford still on the bench decades later; we had both until John Paul Stevens finally retired in 2010. Further, we’d end the incentive for presidents to appoint too-young Justices in order to extend their legacies and reduce the sort of pressures Ginsburg is now facing.

Given the Constitutional realities, however, Ginsburg is fully within her rights to stay on the bench so long as she thinks she’s up to the job. Indeed, it undermines the fiction of an impartial judiciary to have Justices timing their retirements to ensure that presidents of their party can appoint a likeminded successor.

Further, given the current political climate, there’s no real incentive for Ginsburg to step down. First, Obama would likely appoint another Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor, both of whom are more centrist than Ginsburg, in order to avoid a Republican filibuster. Second, while 2016 is a long time away in political terms, the odds are looking pretty good of a Democrat succeeding Obama in office. That wouldn’t quite get her to 90 but it reduces the pressure to retire before she’s ready.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. If she is looking at the Brandeis record, then that leaves her in there until at least 2017 absent health reasons. I can’t recall any time in recent memory when a President tried to push through a SCOTUS nomination in a Presidential election year.

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  2. Caj says:

    Justice Ginsberg is a lovely lady and good at her job, but I feel there comes a time in everyone’s life especially at that age to call it a day. It’s time for younger people to take the helm. We need younger people on the SCOTUS anyway. Some of them are too entrenched in their own personal agenda’s and the will of the people seems to get thrown out the window. Times are changing and some of them have no desire to move with the times. Some are stuck in a time warp and in some cases want to take us back to the dark ages especially where voting is concerned! We bang on about other countries having democracy when here in our own country those rights are being stripped away as regards voting rights! Pure hypocrisy!!

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  3. @Caj:

    The Supreme Court is not meant to be a “democratic” institution, so I’d suggest your comments are somewhat misplaced.

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  4. BIll says:

    Doug wrote:

    I can’t recall any time in recent memory when a President tried to push through a SCOTUS nomination in a Presidential election year.

    It was 1968 and Lyndon Johnson tried to elevate Abe Fortas from Associate Justice(To replace Earl Warren) to Chief Justice and have Homer Thorneberry fill the seat held by Fortas. The Senate fillibustered the nominations. Within a year Fortas resigned from the court. Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun eventually got the seats on court.

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  5. @BIll:

    My excuse in not being able to remember that one is that I was either waiting to be/being/or just had been born during the summer of 1968 :D

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  6. wr says:

    It’s crazy to try to get Ginsburg to step down. We need Scalia, Thomas and Alito to retire…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  7. BIll says:

    My excuse in not being able to remember that one is that I was either waiting to be/being/or just had been born during the summer of 1968 :D

    In 1968 I was 7 years old and not paying much attention to Supreme Court drama. In between the 1st and 2nd grades my family made a trip to Ohio from our home in New York. We went to see the New York Mets play the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field and went to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus.

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  8. steve says:

    20 years is too long. Make it 10.

    Steve

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  9. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Agree that federal judge’s terms should be limited to 20, maybe with an option to renew.
    As to Judge Ginsburg, she has been playing Russian roulette politically since 2011. So far she has been lucky, but luck does run out.
    It looks now that we could have a Democrat in 2016-maybe Clinton. If so, then she might appoint as many as four Judges (replacing Breyer, Ginsburg, Kennedy, Scalia) That would be joy in Liberaland.One possibility-replacing Ginsburg with Barack Obama. Ah, well, a liberal can dream.

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  10. george says:

    Supreme court judges shouldn’t be political. I know they are, but its an insane way of doing things – a judge’s primary attribute is their political allegiance? That’s pretty unusual in the western world, how did it come to be that way?

    And this is a case where definitely both sides do it. That people felt it weird or even bad that Kagan and Scalia went hunting together says how crazy its gotten to be … you’re not even supposed to socialize with people who’ve a different political opinion than yourself? Seriously?

    Ginsburg should stay as long as she feels capable.

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  11. EMRVentures says:

    To me, this says nothing about when Justice Ginsburg will retire from the bench. She’s as likely to retire come January, or never retire and die in office, as she was before she made these statements.

    She was just saying,

    “I’ve done things my way all my life, and that’s not going to change. I’ll go when I go, on my schedule, and nothing anyone says is going to make any difference.

    You need a Constitutional amendment to lower my salary by even a dollar, much less fire me, so y’all can just shutcher cakeholes, OK?”

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  12. george says:

    @stonetools:

    One possibility-replacing Ginsburg with Barack Obama. Ah, well, a liberal can dream.

    You think Obama would make a better supreme court justice than Ginsburg? Seriously?

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  13. Tillman says:

    @stonetools:

    One possibility-replacing Ginsburg with Barack Obama. Ah, well, a liberal can dream.

    Aw yeah, do the Taft!

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  14. Deserttrek says:

    while i do not agree with her or most of her rulings, she can stay until she decides to leave. we don’t need barry boy appointing any more communists to the court

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