Article III of the Constitution establishes and empowers the judicial branch of the national government. The very first sentence of Article III says: “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” So the Constitution itself says that we will have a Supreme Court, and that this Court is separate from both the legislature (Congress) and the executive (the President). It is up to Congress to decide what other federal courts we will have. But one of the first things Congress did in 1789, the year the new government got going, was to set up a federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court—with six Justices. Today, we have a three-level federal court system—trial courts, courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court—with about 800 federal judges. All those judges, and the Justices of the Supreme Court, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
Why did the Framers guarantee that we would have a Supreme Court (unless the Constitution was amended—a very difficult thing to do) but leave open the possibility that there would be no other federal courts, depending on what the politicians in Congress decided? The answer tells us something about the debates at the time the Constitution was written. To some people in the United States at that time, the federal government seemed almost like a foreign government. Those people’s main loyalty was to their states; the federal government was far away, and they did not feel that they had much of a say in who ran it. If you thought that way, an extensive system of federal courts, staffed by judges who were appointed by the President and who might not have a lot of connections to the state and its government, amounted to allowing the “foreign,” federal government to get its tentacles into every corner of the nation. Other Framers, though, thought that the federal government could not be effective unless it had courts to help enforce its laws. If everything were left up to state courts, states that were hostile to the new federal government might thwart it at every turn.
The compromise was that, just as the Constitution and federal laws would be the “supreme Law of the Land,” there would definitely be a Supreme Court—so a court created by the federal government, with judges appointed by the President, would get the last word, in case state courts did something that was too threatening to the new nation. But the extent and shape of the rest of the federal court system—the degree to which the federal government would be present around the nation—would get hashed out in day-to-day politics. The result is the large and powerful federal judiciary we have today.
The second sentence of Article III, Section 1, says: “The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.” It’s pretty clear what’s going on here: this provision is designed to make sure that the judges are independent. They can decide cases according to what they think the law requires, without worrying about whether some powerful person—or even a majority of the people—will object. As Alexander Hamilton put it in The Federalist No. 78, judicial independence “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.”
The language about “holding offices during good behaviour” has been interpreted to mean that the only way federal judges can be removed from office is if the House of Representatives impeaches them, and the Senate convicts them, of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Only fifteen judges have ever been impeached (that is, formally accused by the House of Representatives) and only eight have been convicted and removed from office. For practical purposes, any judge who does not commit a crime (or do something equally bad) has “lifetime tenure” and will stay in office until he or she dies or voluntarily steps down. And, as the provision says, Congress and the President cannot retaliate against judges by cutting their salaries.
Most state court judges—unlike federal judges—are elected, not appointed; and some have to be re-elected, or approved by the voters, every few years. Those systems of elected judges are often criticized just because, unlike the federal system, judges might think they have to do politically popular things, or build up political connections, in order to keep their jobs, even if that means ruling in a way that doesn’t follow the law. Very few people think that federal judges should be elected. There are, though, some critics of lifetime tenure: those critics say that lifetime tenure causes judges to stay in their positions longer than they should—after they have become too old to do their job well, either just because of age or because they are out of touch with modern times. Maybe, these critics say, judges should be appointed for a fixed term of years—say 14 or 18 years—with no chance of being reappointed. They still couldn’t be fired and, since they would have to leave at the end of their term, they would have no reason to shape their rulings in a way that pleases powerful figures or popular opinion. But a change like this would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment, and the chance of its happening is extremely small.
Although the guarantee that judges will have lifetime tenure seems simple, it actually raises a difficult question in our system. In the federal government, there are many officials who do judge-like things—think of military courts-martial, for example—but who do not have the lifetime tenure that Article III seems to require for federal judges. Many of these officials are members of, or work for, administrative agencies—what is sometimes called the federal bureaucracy. Officials like this will rule on whether, for example, a company has used advertisements that deceive consumers, or a business has wrongly tried to prevent its workers from joining a union, or the government has not paid a person the disability benefits he or she is entitled to. Thousands of decisions of this kind are made every year by federal officials who are not considered “judges” for purposes of Article III, and therefore do not have lifetime tenure, but who are doing the kinds of things judges usually do: settle disputes between people. These administrative officials usually serve only for a few years, after which the President can replace them. There are safeguards to prevent officials of this kind from being openly biased or unfair, but because they are appointed so frequently, they are often thought to be more responsive to day-to-day politics than judges are.
Why do we allow these officials to resolve disputes in the way that judges do, even though they do not have the lifetime tenure guarantee that judges have? The answer is complicated, but the basic idea is that you generally have a right to appeal from a decision of one of these officials to a judge whose independence is protected by lifetime tenure. So judges—including, potentially, the Supreme Court—will have the final word, and that, the Supreme Court has said, is enough to maintain the principle of judicial independence enshrined in Article III.