Q55: How long do United States Supreme Court justices serve?

A. Lifetime appointment until retirement
B. 18 years
C. 25 years
D. Until the age of 70

Q56: Why do Supreme Court justices serve for life?

A. To be independent of politics
B. Because the Founders could not agree on how many years they should serve
C. Because the Articles of Confederation allowed them to serve for life
D. The 11th  Amendment 

Question Background Information


Among the sins of the British government listed in the Declaration of Independence is that it made “judges dependent on [the king’s] Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” In other words, rather than have a lifetime appointment and a fixed salary, as Article III establishes for federal judges (including Supreme Court justices), the British did not extend such independence to colonial judges, and thus politicians could apply political pressure on the judges to get the rulings that the government wanted. 

There are several ways to select judges in the American system. Many states elect judges in competitive elections, with candidates sometimes labeled by party, and sometimes nominally non-partisan. Some states use what is called the “merit plan” or Missouri plan, in which a nominating committee, often anchored by the local bar association (the group of lawyers), puts forward judges to be selected by the governor. Rather than face competitive re-elections, judges in the Missouri Plan instead face retention elections, in which citizens merely decide whether to renew the judge’s term of office.

The federal judiciary, like that of many states, prioritizes judicial independence—ensuring that judges can apply the rule of law without fear of political retribution from elected branches or popular pressure.  

Additional Content

Offline Activity


The goal of the federal judiciary is to ensure judges are independent of outside influence and thus able to apply and implement the Constitution and rule of law, rather than bow to political pressure. Current Chief Justice John Roberts once compared judges to baseball umpires, arguing their job was to apply the rules, not to play the game. As a judge, Roberts said, "I will remember it's my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat." This exercise uses that comparison and the decision-making process to simulate the tension one might feel when under such pressure in making a decision.


Provide each group with a copy of:

  • History of Judicial Independence in America 
  • Case Study: Judging on the Court   
  • Federalist 78 (optional)
  • Decision-Making Worksheet 
  • Decision-Making Process 

Required files


  1. This activity works well as an individual assignment. However, depending on the age and/or skill level of the students, you may want to have them work in larger groups. 
    • If that is the case, divide the class into pairs based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. 
      • When using pairs, assign those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C). 
      • Groups of three or more should have at least one student from each group. 
  2. Begin by having the students discuss what they know about how long Supreme Court justices serve and why (e.g. Discussion prompt 1) 
  3. Next, have them read the History of Judicial Independence in America and possibly Federalist 78.
  4. After that, explain to them that they will have to decide how to rule as a judge (of sports)  and will use the seven-step decision-making model to make their decision.  
  5. Provide each group with the appropriate materials. 
    • Review the seven steps on the handout. If necessary, have the students practice going through the steps as a group before assigning them to work on their reading. 
    • It is likely that the students will need additional paper to conduct their brainstorming session. 
    • For older students, provide copies of the readings themselves and require them to use the documents to support their final decision.  
  6. Circulate throughout the room to help students as needed. 
  7. Once everyone is finished, lead a class discussion reviewing the process and 
    • how it affected their final decision, 
    • what their decisions were, 
    • what, if anything, this taught them about judges having judicial independence to make decisions.  
    • what if the ref was actually wrong, and others were correct in saying the player didn’t violate the rule? How should others react?

Discussion Prompts


Article III establishes that justices, like all federal judges, will serve “during good behavior,” which has turned out to mean, in practice, life tenure. The purpose of this is to ensure that judges do not issue rulings based on political pressure or popularity but instead based on the demands of the Constitution and law.

Prompt 1

How long do Supreme Court justices serve? Why do they serve that long?

Prompt 2

Skeptics of the Constitution worried that giving judges life tenure would let judges strike down laws that they thought were unwise, unjust, or otherwise undesirable as policy—in other words, creating an unaccountable aristocracy ultimately ruling the country. Federalist 78 and 81 defended giving judges life tenure so as to make sure the Constitution was protected but agreed judges would only have authority to apply and enforce the Constitution, not to block laws judges merely disliked.  Why could making sure judges have life tenure be helpful to enforce the Constitution? Under what circumstances would judicial life tenure not help enforce the Constitution and perhaps even harm it? Support your answer with current and past events in history.