Life Tenure

Life Tenure in the United States

Term used to describe the effect of the constitutional language establishing the tenure of federal judges. Under terms of Article III, Section 1, all federal judges of constitutional courts “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” This, in effect, means for the rest of their professional lives. The life tenure provision, as well as the Article III language forbidding Congress from diminishing the salaries of incumbent federal judges, was designed to promote judicial independence. The only way a federal judge may be removed is through the process of impeachment. Provisions exist under statute for sanctioning federal judges in ways less severe than removal from office. The life tenure protection exists only for federal judges. State judges, even those selected by executive or legislative appointment, serve terms of specified length.

See Also

Judicial Independence (Judicial Personnel issue).

Analysis and Relevance

The “good behavior” provision means that federal judges have virtual life tenure. Federal judges can be removed for misconduct, however, and Congress has the authority to implement removal procedures. The impeachment process requires the House of Representatives to bring charges, with a trial of those charges following in the Senate. The House has seldom brought impeachment proceedings against federal judges, and only five have been convicted and removed from office. Impeachment charges are usually for criminal conduct. In 1936, U.S. District Judge Halsted Ritter was accused of corruption and removed for bringing his court into “disrepute.” The most recent removal of a federal judge occurred in 1986 when U.S. District Judge Harry Claiborne was impeached on charges related to income tax evasion. While the impeachment process has seldom been taken to conclusion, it may be used in leveraging a resignation from a judge who is unlikely to survive the process. In 1980, Congress enacted legislation authorizing the Judicial Council of each circuit to investigate complaints filed against judges. If the complaint has merit, the council may request that the judge retire, reprimand the judge, or order that no cases be assigned to the judge. In extreme cases, the council may recommend removal to the House of Representatives.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Life Tenure from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Life Tenure: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Life Tenure. This part provides references, in relation to Life Tenure, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Life Tenure by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Life Tenure and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Life Tenure or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Life Tenure and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Life Tenure. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Life Tenure should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Life Tenure when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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