Here is part of Tony Mauro's account of yesterday's session of the US Supreme Court:
When Scalia was reading his own opinion Stevens occasionally shook his head in disbelief. And Stevens jousted back. With emphasis on the word "genuine," Stevens said that "a genuine judicial conservative" would not have inserted the Court into the "political thicket" of the gun rights debate as Scalia had done.
Through it all, the rest of the Court seemed either calm or exhausted on this, the final session of the Court's term before it adjourned for the summer. Wakefulness escaped Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg repeatedly throughout the Scalia-Stevens confrontation, and Justices Stephen Breyer and David Souter seemed to be struggling to stay awake at times as well. In fact Stevens, age 88, seemed to be the only dissenter with any spark or vigor. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. smiled broadly as he opened the session, and Justce Clarence Thomas, who often seems bored or disengaged on the bench, seemed unusually animated.
Am I reading Mauro correctly? Did Justice Ginsburg "repeatedly" fall asleep on the bench during yesterday's session of the Supreme Court?
To reduce the strain on our increasingly elderly Court, might we consider term limits? Steve Calabresi and my article on this issue can be downloaded from the bottom of this SSRN page.
UPDATE: If 18-year term limits had been instituted long ago, half the Court (all of them Republican appointees) would already be gone and Justice Thomas would be stepping down next year. Justice Ginsburg would be serving for 3 more years.
The idea is not that most justices are unable to do their work (though in recent decades perhaps a quarter of them have been unable to do their work competently during their last year on the Court). And the oldest justice, Stevens, is reportedly in excellent physical and mental health; if I were Justice Stevens, I'd keep going to set the record.
The question of when to retire is one that each justice should make for himself (or herself) based mostly on personal preferences. But the question for designers of a judicial system is what patterns of tenure lead to the best Court. The point should be to get a Court filled with justices at or near their peak in performance.
2d UPDATE: I had no idea that Justice Ginsburg had fallen asleep on the bench before -- indeed, fallen asleep during argument — and that the mainstream press failed to mention it, just as the press covered up some of the sleeping on the bench and mental confusion of some elderly justices in the late 1980s.