LaRue is a former deputy director of the Eisenhower Institute, a nonpartisan think tank at Gettysburg College, and of the American Society of International Law.
Back in April I argued in this space for remaking the presidency, with a term of six years followed by the chance for the incumbent to win a second term of just three years.
By better matching the electorate's behavior (by heightening the voters' power to render a verdict during their "six-year itch") and better reflecting the terms' relative value (to minimize the second term "curse"), this structure would produce numerous benefits — ranging from easing the relentless pressure of permanent campaign to incumbents being lame ducks for a third of their presidencies, but not half.
Despite such benefits, the proposal runs head-on into the presidency of Donald Trump. The prospect of two additional years of his service horrifies many people, including me.
It is useful to recall the two main scenarios for service in the White House: a president serving four years, or winning re-election and serving eight years. The second scenario now seems implausible, but not impossible, for the incumbent.
Under my proposal, we would have two more years of Trump — but it would be highly likely we would have no more than that, because he would be facing the even higher reelection hurdle at the six-year itch mark.
If he serves only one term, the idea of it lasting two more years seemingly becomes problematic. This is not the case, and there are four reasons why.
First, the reality that reelection after four years has become too easy — based on factors I've labeled the "four-year crutch" — would not really be countermanded by a Trump defeat. His presidency is so anomalous that his tenure has no direct relevance to questions about term lengths or any governing structure — save, of course, the Electoral College.
Second, any change in presidential term lengths would require a constitutional amendment and so would start many years, if not decades, in the future. This long time horizon is worth a reminder not because Trump will be long gone by then, not matter what, but because our nation's politics will have to change significantly before changes to term lengths will ever be seriously considered. Extensive civic education and other reforms to improve voting and electioneering would have to occur, producing a political environment more resistant to a narcissistic demagogue's appeal than in recent years.
Third, with the nation now confronting its glaring mistake of electing a huckster as president, it is doubtful we will soon repeat such a grievous error. Trump's authoritarian venality, corruption, incompetence and truthlessness will become clearer after November — whether he's a furious lame duck for 11 weeks or somehow re-elected and unfettered for four years. We also will learn a great deal about his presidency after he leaves office. When all the redactions are lifted and the details of Trump's finances are exposed, the picture of the Trump administration will likely be far darker than it is today.
Finally, even if a Trumpian sort of populist is elected in the future, impeachment and conviction remain a viable means for removing such a president — and this process would likely be more effective if attempted during a longer, six-year first term. Whether rushed or too exclusively partisan, Trump's impeachment last year came with no real prospect of conviction and removal. The Democratic House leadership felt pressure to act sufficiently in advance of the 2020 election, which foreclosed the option of gathering more evidence of his unsuitability for office. Such additional material may not have proved equivalent to Richard Nixon's Oval Office tapes, but its cumulative weight may have started cracking the support of Trump's Senate enablers.
These considerations all signal that the Trump presidency is mostly irrelevant to the idea of changing presidential term lengths to a six-year first term and a three-year second term. If anything, it may strengthen the case for addressing the underlying challenges that led to Trump's election in the first place — including structural ones, such as term lengths and the Electoral College.
Trump may be the civic wake-up call we end up having needed. That he has boosted civic education and engagement in America is noted by scholars and analysts such as Jeffrey Tulis, E.J. Dionne, Jr., Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. And we must acknowledge that the 2018 blue wave may have been but a ripple had Hillary Clinton been elected in 2016, as such midterms almost never favor the incumbent president's party.
The good news is that Trump will find himself — sadly, we are not there yet — at the bottom of the civic pit he has been digging deeper. There will only be one way out: Up, and without him. Competence in governance will again count for something. Civility in public affairs will count for more. Concern for others will return as the benchmark of public service. Compromise will regain at least some of its value.
Baseball fans know the game offers lessons as well as escape. "I will be told I am an idealist. I hope so," Commissioner Bart Giamatti said in announcing superstar Pete Rose's 1989 banishment for gambling on the sport. He said baseball was a "resilient institution," and that "no individual is superior to the game."
And like baseball after Rose was barred, governance after Trump's tenure will get better — even if it takes several seasons, or elections. Our ingenuity will get us out of tight spots, even those our Founders, our predecessors and our own peers created. And constitutional change — such as altering presidential term lengths, will not seem as far-fetched as it does at the moment.
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Roth is executive director of Fix the Court, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for greater transparency and accountability in the federal judiciary.
Two Supreme Court justices have been hospitalized in the past month for serious health issues. Either could have died, reshaping the court — and the law — for decades. These close calls have increased interest in a question that scholars have been debating since our nation's founding: Should justices serve on the high court for life?
The simple answer is that they shouldn't. And there's a straightforward and widely popular fix that would safeguard judicial independence while preventing superannuation: establishing 18-year term limits for future justices.
Chief Justice John Roberts is only 65, but given his history of seizures, the June 21 fall that landed him in the hospital for a night was of great concern for those who've praised his efforts to keep the court above the political fray during the Trump presidency. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who's 87, spent a night in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore last week for a possible infection and subsequently announced she's being treated for a recurrence of cancer, reigniting liberals' fears over a possible vacancy during the peak of a presidential campaign.
Ginsburg's health has caused anxiety ever since Republicans took control of the Senate after the 2014 election, when she was a mere 81 and had already served on the high court for 21 years. That should have been enough time to make her mark on the law, right?
In the past, justices would leave the court for all sorts of reasons after tenures of 15 to 20 years — sometimes even less. Then they'd run for office, take a different government appointment, return to private practice or simply enjoy their sunset years. Nowadays, justices hold on to their power for as long as they can, say 30 or 35 years — and then continue holding on to it until a president with whom they tend to agree sits in the Oval Office.
There's no "Ginsburg seat" or "Antonin Scalia seat" mentioned in the founding document, but it sure feels that way.
The fate of our nation's laws should rest in the hands of individuals who hold their positions based on fairness and regularity, not on actuarial tables and support for the current president.
That's why I, and many others who are much smarter, advocate limiting future justices to 18 years of active service. After that, they would become "senior justices," maintaining the same office and compensation as Article III of the Constitution commands, but not hearing cases unless called upon. Under this proposal, senior justices could also choose to serve on a lower court by designation, something that justices who have retired from the court regularly do.
The elegance of the 18-year plan is that it allows each president to nominate two of the nine justices per four-year term, with no exceptions. In the case of an unexpected vacancy — because of death or medical emergency, say — a senior justice would fill in until the expiration of the term of the departed justice. For example, when Scalia died four years ago, the court would not have been reduced to eight justices; rather, the most recently retired justice, John Paul Stevens, would have taken his place until the next justice was confirmed.
Term limits for the Supreme Court are widely popular, with polling this spring showing 77 percent of Americans favoring the reform. It's an idea that has received support from intellectuals across the political spectrum and was recently endorsed by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences, a society founded a decade before the Constitution was ratified.
Limiting justices' terms would not magically end the hyperpartisanship in Washington today. But it would greatly reduce the chance and gamesmanship that currently characterize the process of confirming justices. Not happy with a recently confirmed justice? No problem. The next opportunity to shape the court is coming in 24 months.
Such regularity would reduce the temperature of today's Senate confirmation process, promote fair-mindedness and increase the chances the future justices are seasoned jurists in their 50s or 60s — and not firebrands in their 40s replacing jurists in their 90s, which is what the current system encourages.
"There is much to be said for changing life tenure to a term of years, without possibility of reappointment," one of President Rondald Reagan's lawyers wrote in 1983. Term limits, he added "would ensure that federal judges would not lose all touch with reality through decades of ivory tower existence. It would also provide a more regular and greater degree of turnover among the judges. Both developments would, in my view, be healthy ones."
That lawyer was John Roberts. Congress should heed that advice and pass a law. Though the Constitution implies a justice serves for life, it doesn't say on which court she shall serve out her days.
Serve 18 years on the Supreme Court, then rotate to a lower court or retire outright, and return to the high court if needed. That way fairness, not a cabal of the infirm, will reign supreme.
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The first round of the Elections "regional" bracket is in the books, and there were quite a few upsets.
While our top three seeds in this quarter of our Democracy Madness draw made it through unscathed, there were four early upsets among the matchups of 16 proposals for restructuring and reforming election rules.
Our 13th-ranked idea, limiting the tenure of Supreme Court justices, took out the idea of expanding the fall presidential debates to more candidates, which we seeded No. 4. Now court term limits will have the chance to take down the No. 5 seed — having all-candidate primaries where the top two advance to November, regardless of party. If it prevails, it will be the lowest seed to make it to a regional Final Four.
Three other proposals bested higher-seeded ideas in the Elections first round: Having multi-member U.S. House districts, setting congressional term limits and minimizing the Electoral College's importance by switching to the so-called National Popular Vote Compact.
Second-round voting is open until Sunday. So don't forget to press the Vote Now button and make all four choices. You can also click the matchups, then each label, for more about the surviving proposals.
This competition is designed to learn what readers think is the single best of 64 ideas for reforming our governing systems and putting voters back at the center of things. (A reminder that No. 2 ranked-choice voting triumphed last week in our Voting region, which squared off first.)
This month we kicked off our Democracy Madness competition with the Voting "region," which ranked-choice voting won by rolling over competing proposals for bettering democracy by altering voting rules. Now we're one to the second region: Elections.
The aim here is to have some good-natured competitive fun — and also learning what readers think are the best ideas for reforming our governing systems and putting voters back at the center of things.
By the end of our 64-idea tournament in a few weeks, you will have told us what you think would be the single most transformational change.
Similar to the NCAA's March Madness, not every "team" fits the regional description perfectly.
But most of these 16 contenders are related to structural aspects of local, state and federal elections. The top seed is both a popular cause and a long-shot to actually happen — eliminating the Electoral College in favor of electing presidents by simple popular vote. You'll also find a couple of alternative ways to weaken the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution.
The No. 2 seed is using independent commissions to draw electoral districts. This way of combating partisan gerrymandering comes into the tournament on a roll, having just won a big court victory in Michigan and going before Virginia's voters this fall after approval by the General Assembly.
The third seed is making primaries open to all voters ( a big issue in Florida right now). In the No. 4 slot is giving third-party and independent candidates a real shot at being in the fall presidential debates.
First-round voting closes Wednesday night, with an Elite Eight round kicking off Thursday morning.
You can click the matchups, then each label, for more about the proposals. Click the Vote Now button to get started.
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