Prominent U.S. appeals court judge calls Supreme Court term limits 'intriguing'

U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood appears in an undated handout photo. 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals/Handout via Reuters
  • 7th Circuit Judge Diane Woods favors age limits for federal judges
  • Wood calls proposal for U.S. Supreme Court 18-year term limits "ambitious"

Aug 25 (Reuters) - A prominent federal appeals court judge has taken the rare step of speaking up in support of limits on how long members of the judiciary can remain on the bench and called a proposal in Congress to cap U.S. Supreme Court justices' terms at 18 years "intriguing."

U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Wood, a member of the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and one-time U.S. Supreme Court contender, made those remarks in a podcast released this month by Duke Law School's Bolch Judicial Institute.

Wood, who former Democratic President Bill Clinton appointed to her lifetime position, said she would "favor something like" an age limit for judges set at 75 to 80, citing the risk of aging jurists developing dementia or other impairing conditions.

"The people who wrote the Constitution didn’t think that everybody was going to live to 90 and keep on serving as a judge because life expectancies just weren’t that high," Wood told David Levi, the institute's director and host of the podcast.

Wood, 72, acknowledged that at her stage of life, "I probably say that against interest." While she said last December that she plans to take senior status, a form of semi-retirement for judges, upon the confirmation of a successor, she intends to still hear cases.

When it comes to removing judges, Wood said the judiciary has "so few tools, other than just persuasion and trying to get somebody to understand that it’s time to go."

While Wood said age limits would require a constitutional amendment, she called a separate proposal to set 18-year term limits for Supreme Court justices "ambitious" and "intriguing."

Under legislation called the Supreme Court TERM Act, which is pending in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, justices would have to take senior status and fill-in for active justices after 18 years on the high court bench.

That legislation is backed by Congressional Democrats and advocates at groups like Fix the Court. In an email to Reuters on Wednesday, Wood said she was not endorsing that or any other bill.

"But the idea of an outer limit on a Justice’s Supreme Court assignments would bring the average length of service at the highest level back to what it normally was during the first 100-150 years of our country, life-spans being what they were," she wrote.

Recently-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has said he favors term limits, and liberal Justice Elena Kagan has said that while she is happy with life tenure she sees merit to moving to 18-year terms.

Read more:

7th Circuit's Wood to take senior status, giving Biden third seat to fill

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.