Would term limits for Chief Justices be a good idea?

Yesterday was the 17th anniversary of Beverley McLachlin’s appointment as Chief Justice of Canada. The Supreme Court’s account issued a celebratory tweet. And for my part, to visualize this length of time, I headed over to the Internet Archive to find what the Court’s website looked like in early 2000. A worthy exemplar of fin de siècle web design it was.


But, on a (slightly) more serious note, I have also been asking myself this question: is it a good idea for a Chief Justice to remain in this position for so long? This isn’t, mind you, a dig at Chief Justice McLachlin, or at least it isn’t only that. I have my differences with her, but the issue here isn’t a personal one. It’s about whether the position itself is such that no person, whoever she or he may be,  should occupy it for such an extended period of time.

Admittedly, Chief Justice McLachlin’s tenure, although record-breaking in Canada’s history, isn’t exceptionally long in a comparative perspective. Indeed, our Chief Justice is not even the longest-serving one among her current peers. New Zealand’s Sian Elias was appointed on May 17, 1999 (although she was the Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal at the time, and New Zealand still retained appeals to the Privy Council, the Supreme Court of New Zealand only being created in 2003, at which point the senior Court of Appeal judges were promoted). And while Chief Justice McLachlin’s tenure will soon overtake that of Warren Burger as Chief Justice of the United States, she will not quite catch William Rehnquist before she retires ― never mind John Marshall, who was Chief Justice for more than 34 years.

Still, one can wonder whether this all might be too much of a good thing. Now, I think that the Canadian approach to judicial terms ― appointing judges until a fixed retirement age ― is generally the right one. (Other Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, generally follow this approach too.) Appointing judges for a fixed term, even a long one, means that, unless they are appointed at a relatively old age, they will be looking for post-bench employment, which is not especially conducive to independence in office. If the term is renewable, the problem is that much worse. Conversely, life-time appointments with no age limit, like those of federal judges in the United States, allow judges to continue in office longer than is probably good for them and, more importantly, for everyone else, as the recent escapades of Justice Ginsburg and Judge Posner demonstrate. But it’s not clear that the office of Chief Justice should be treated in the same way as that of an ordinary judge.

It is, after all, perfectly conceivable that a judge will become Chief Justice of his or her court for a time, and then return to the position of an ordinary ― or, in the language of the Supreme Court Act, puisne ― judge. Indeed, this is precisely the approach taken to the lower federal courts in the United States, where the Chief Judges of the Circuit Courts serve in that position for seven years or until they turn 70. Put the details ― the length of the term, and whether there should be an age limit where judges are already subject to mandatory retirement ― to one side. The question of whether Chief Justices should be individually chosen, as they are now, or selected pursuant to an automatically applicable rule, as the Chief Judges of Circuit Courts are, is also secondary. What I’m interested in is whether, once chosen in whatever fashion, a Chief Justice should retain that position so long as he or she remains a judge or only for a fixed term.

Unlike fixed terms for the tenure of ordinary judicial office, I do not think that such a rule would raise any concerns about judicial independence. There would be no question about what the soon-to-be-former Chief Justice is going to do next, or any reason to worry about his or her currying favour with a successor. A more serious concern might be whether a fixed-term Chief Justice would be weaker than an indefinite-term one when staring down other branches of government, as Chief Justice McLachlin had to do when the federal government sought to cast aspersions on her and her court’s integrity in the aftermath of l’Affaire Nadon. But I doubt that a Chief Justice’s position in such an unfortunate circumstance is meaningfully strengthened by the absence of a term limit. Again, provided that at the end of his term he or she simply reverts to being an ordinary judge able to serve until retirement age, the Chief Justice would be no more vulnerable to the government’s pressure than Chief Justice McLachlin was. In short, I do not see much of a downside to fixed term appointments to the position of Chief Justice ― though perhaps I am missing something.

As for upsides, they are admittedly speculative, but they might nevertheless be worth pursuing. A Chief Justice’s powers are narrow, but they are powers all the same, notably that of assigning the writing of opinions. And all power ― not only absolute power ― tends to corrupt. It is probably best if a single person does not exercise power for decades on end ― for the institution over which that person presides, the persons whose fates that institution decides, and indeed that person her- or himself. Moreover, in addition to the corrupting effects of power, a Chief Justice is also liable to be influenced by her or his position as the representative of the court, and indeed of the judiciary more broadly. Chief Justices are liable to see their loyalties as being primarily to the institutions they head, rather than to the law; they dislike it when their colleagues dissent; they might vote with an eye to their court’s standing and be tempted to twist arms if not break legs to get their colleagues to go along. These tendencies may be understandable, and perhaps even useful to some extent, but they can also become toxic if they are too strong. And it seems reasonable to suppose that the longer a person remains in the position of Chief Justice, the more he or she gets used to seeing the world from the distinct, and not always healthy, perspective that this office gives. Limiting the time during which a judge is put in this special position may check these tendencies, again to the benefit of all concerned.

Take this for what it’s worth ― it’s only me thinking out loud. And of course, should anyone take up the suggestion, the question of whether implementing it could be done by amending the Supreme Court Act or requires an amendment pursuant to par 42(1)(d) of the Constitution Act, 1982 would have to be faced. (The short answer to that question is “Who knows?”.) As it is, Chief Justice McLachlin is bound to retire by September 2018. But if the Prime Minister chooses to appoint one of the Québec judges to succeed her, then the next Chief Justice’s term might be even longer than hers.