by | Sep 18, 2005 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Anyone who has ever stood at the altar of marriage knows the heart can skip a beat at the words “till death do you part.” After all, who knows what might happen? Who knows how you might change in your thinking? Till death do you part is a long time, right?

Which brings us to the Supreme Court. As we watch these silly hearings to confirm John Roberts – and by silly I mean if the answer to every question is “I can’t answer that question,” then it’s silly – I keep asking myself, why are we appointing these people till death do they part?

After all, if half the couples in this country can’t last through a marriage, the most important lifetime commitment, then what makes us think it’s a good idea for judges?

Oh, sure, back when they were writing the Constitution – which is where this lifetime appointment thing originates – our leaders thought this was a fine idea. They thought it would ensure that justices weren’t beholden to the presidents who appointed them. But how long did men live back then, on average? Forty? By the time a guy was qualified for the Supreme Court, he was already getting the senior discount.

Today, Americans are expected to live around 80 years. If you’re lucky and take care of yourself, even longer than that.

And Roberts is 50.

In the year 2035 …

Which means the man we make chief justice today could be there as you have children, and as they have children. Thirty years from now, he still could have his same job. You won’t. I won’t. He could.

To realize how long this is, consider life 30 years ago: There were no cell phones, no Internet, and we were just getting out of Vietnam. With life moving at such a rapid pace, one can only imagine the issues facing the Supreme Court in 2035.

How could any man or woman stand up to that forecast? The problem with John Roberts isn’t that his list of judicial decisions is so short, but that his potential list is so long.

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., grew exasperated with Roberts’ vague responses last week and said, at one point, “We are rolling the dice with you, judge.”

But wouldn’t we be rolling them with anyone as young as he is?

Change the system

So maybe the question we should be asking is: “Does lifetime appointment still make sense?” Maybe we should cap it at 10 or 15 years. Isn’t that long enough to have an effect? Isn’t that long enough to outlast any president who appoints you? Isn’t that long enough to build a body of decisions, without worrying the public that your particular leanings may dominate for decades? And wouldn’t that increase the odds that every president would make at least one nomination during his term?

Sure, you’d have to amend the Constitution. And you’d have to apply it to federal judges as well. Then again, given the backlash against judges these days, why would they want the job for life?

Anyhow, it has to be better than the teeth gnashing going on in these hearings. The senators want to know what Roberts thinks. He won’t say what he thinks. They want to know where he leans. He won’t say where he leans. They want to know how he will look at things. He says he can’t say how he will look at things.

It’s like the groom declaring, “I don’t know if I can honor her or cherish her, but I will explore the precedents set for loving her” and the minister saying, “Good enough, kiss the bride.”

We are looking for something in Roberts that we will never find. We are looking for the future. We want to know if the next 30 years will be safe in his hands.

We can’t control his hands. We could control the years. Maybe the debate we should be having should be less about the who than the when.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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