PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is rolling out a new idea in his ongoing campaign to reform the Supreme Court, announcing Thursday he has written legislation that takes a different approach to placing term limits on the justices.
“This creates a moment around which people who care about the Supreme Court can rally to refresh and redeem the body,” Whitehouse, a third-term Democrat, said during a virtual news conference Thursday.
Like similar previous proposals, Whitehouse’s bill calls for 18-year terms for the nine justices, who currently serve for life. A new justice would be appointed every two years, replacing the most senior justice, with a president being eligible to choose a justice in the first and third years of his or her terms.
If Whitehouse’s bill became law, two GOP appointees — Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, appointed in 1991, and Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed in 2005 — would be the first to be replaced by the president elected next November.
What’s new under Whitehouse’s bill: justices who have reached the 18-year limit would still be allowed to hear cases under the Supreme Court’s “original jurisdiction,” a small part of the overall docket. In theory, that subcategory of cases could have a dozen or more justices voting on the final decision.
However, the senior justices who have passed 18 years on the bench would be barred from participating in the court’s appellate docket, which is generally the source of its most high-profile and controversial decisions, such as last year’s ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.
“It provides fresh appointments to a damaged and captured court,” Whitehouse said. “It reduces the opportunities for political manipulation of Supreme Court vacancies.”
He added, “It does the court no service for the justices to say they are nonpartisan and then choose to retire for purposes of partisan timing.”
Whitehouse acknowledged the split structure under the new bill — dubbed the Supreme Court Biennial Appointments and Term Limits Act of 2023 — is partly a response to critics who have suggested the U.S. Constitution doesn’t give Congress the authority to impose total term limits on the justices when it comes to its original jurisdiction.
Whitehouse has emerged as arguably the most outspoken critic of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Capitol Hill, assailing their decisions as well as the outside individuals and groups that have supported them. His Supreme Court ethics bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year.
Whitehouse cited polling that shows strong support among Americans for capping the length of service for justices.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he is cosponsoring Whitehouse’s bill and praised the Rhode Islander for what Booker described as his “extraordinary leadership” on issues related to the high court.
“I love this bill,” Booker said.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Threads, Twitter and Facebook.