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Noted Supreme Court scholar David Garrow argues that the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice John Roberts specifically, should take action to address the increasing age of judges. He raises an important problem: the Supreme Court should not be a comfortable retirement home. Garrow proposes that judges undergo mental health checkups and that new judges agree to a retirement age.
But I do not think there is any way that a law could do constitutionally. The Constitution does not permit removal of a judge from office except in limited circumstances, and only through the process of impeachment. Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution states that “the judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior.”
While the Constitution does not define “good behavior,” our historical practice has. Judges who have committed violations of federal criminal law, such as Judge Walter Nixon, can be impeached. During the Jefferson administration, Congress impeached and removed a judge who was apparently a drunkard on the bench (and this before the day of the breathalyzer). But Jefferson’s effort to impeach Justice Samuel Chase, on the claim that he was injudicious in his behavior (but was really a not-so-veiled effort to remove a Federalist from the bench), failed to win conviction in the Senate. I believe that age alone could not be grounds for impeachment and removal, and perhaps not even mental illness, unless it truly incapacitated a judge from the job.