- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004


Six in 10 Americans say there should be a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices, according to an Associated Press poll.

The survey found public support for an idea that has arisen periodically in Congress without ever making headway.

Only one of the nine members, Justice Clarence Thomas, is younger than 65. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, has thyroid cancer, although 59 percent of the people surveyed could not identify what job he held.

The appointment of justices without term limits or a mandatory retirement age historically has helped to insulate the court from politics, said Dennis Hutchinson, a Supreme Court expert from the University of Chicago Law School. At the same time, that can have the unintended consequence of letting some justices serve beyond their most effective years.

People older than 65 were among those most likely to favor mandatory retirement, according to the poll conducted for the Associated Press by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

The question on retirement mentioned no specific retirement age. Appointment of Supreme Court justices for life is dictated by the Constitution (“during good behaviour,” it specifies) and could be changed only by an amendment.

“The justices hold office year after year,” said Opal Bristow, an 84-year-old Democrat and retired teacher who lives near San Antonio. “Some of them are old codgers who need to get out of the way and let the younger folks with fresh ideas come in.”

Over the years, justices frequently have served into their 70s and 80s and often have died in office. In the past few decades, it has become more common for justices to step down when they face serious illnesses.

If President Bush has to nominate someone to the court, the most contentious issue is likely to be the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right.

The survey found that 59 percent of respondents said they favor choosing a nominee who would uphold Roe v. Wade, while 31 percent wanted a nominee who would overturn the ruling.

“While I don’t have a strong feeling about abortions personally, I wouldn’t want the law overturned and return to the days of backdoor abortions,” said Colleen Dunn, 40, a Republican and community-college teacher who lives outside Philadelphia.

The survey found that 61 percent of respondents said Supreme Court nominees should state their position on abortion before being approved for the job.

Another issue that the Supreme Court is expected to rule on is homosexual “marriage.” By 61 percent to 35 percent, people opposed homosexual “marriage,” with young adults between 18 and 29 about evenly split.

The Associated Press-Ipsos poll of 1,000 adults was taken Nov. 19 to 21 and has a margin of error of three percentage points.

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