In the United States, what law grants life tenure to federal judges? The Good Behaviour Clause of the Constitution says:

The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour....

It is said that this was intended to mean that federal judges should have life tenure ... but I cannot find a reference for that (and in fact the link I posted never quote anything from the framers which would suggest that this clause was intended as a guarantee of life tenure to federal judges).

To me the clause would mean that they can stay in office until they show "good behaviour", that is, until and unless they are impeached.

Can Congress approve a statue which says that all federal judges will stay in Office for 5 years? If not, what provisions would that status violates and why? I don't interpret the Good Behaviour Clause as implying that judges will hold their offices for all their lives unless impeached. It only says that they stay in office until impeached, without specifying how long they stay in office.

  • The only sort of "reference" that would be authoritative would be a court ruling that the Good Behaviour Clause does in fact mean life tenure. It is the courts who interpret the Constitution, after all. However, the issue would only arise if Congress actually tried to enact a term limit statute, which as far as I know has never happened, so I would not expect such a ruling to exist. Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 20:25
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    However, given the apparent general consensus among scholars and jurists that the clause was intended to grant life tenure (your interpretation notwithstanding), it seems like a safe bet that the courts would rule that way, and therefore Congress is unlikely to try to pass a term limit law. Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 20:27
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    This article cites the Federalist Papers as favoring "permanent tenure" for judges, so at least one of the framers seems to have had this in mind. Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 20:31
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    @NateEldredge indeed, it's hard to imagine any other meaning for.that clause, and it seems clear that the consensus about its meaning goes back to 1788.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 22:31
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    There is case law supporting the life tenure absent impeachment interpretation of that clause, although I don't have it easily at hand. There are judicial officials who have term of years appointments (e.g. magistrates), but they don't count as Article III judges as a result and can't do things that only Article III judges can do without permission of the parties.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Sep 9, 2019 at 0:56

1 Answer 1


Your interpretation is correct. The constitution says that judges stay in office "until and unless they are impeached." That means that congress cannot impose a time limit on any judge's term of office. If it did so, it would be contrary to the constitution. The only grounds for removal are those to do with misbehavior. Therefore, judges have life tenure.

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