ArtIII.S1.2.1.1 Good Behavior Clause: Overview

Article III, Section 1:

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. 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.

Article III, Section 1 provides that federal judges hold their offices during good behavior.1 This standard, borrowed from English law, ensures that federal judges hold their seats for life, rather than set terms or at the will of a superior.2 The applicability of the Good Behavior Clause to the removal of federal judges has been the subject of debate; in particular, whether the phrase elucidates a distinct standard for removal apart from the high crimes and misdemeanors standard applicable to the impeachment of other federal officers.3 While this question has not been definitively resolved, historical practice indicates an understanding that the Good Behavior Clause protects federal judges from removal for congressional disagreement with legal or political opinions.4

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1The Constitution contains a number of provisions that are relevant to the impeachment of federal officials. Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 grants the sole power of impeachment to the House of Representatives; Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 assigns the Senate sole responsibility to try impeachments; Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 provides that the sanctions for an impeached and convicted individual are limited to removal from office and potentially a bar from holding future office, but an impeachment proceeding does not preclude criminal liability; Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 provides that the President enjoys the pardon power, but it does not extend to cases of impeachment; and Article II, Section 4 defines which officials are subject to impeachment and what kinds of misconduct constitute impeachable behavior. Article III does not mention impeachment expressly, but Section 1, which establishes that federal judges shall hold their seats during good behavior, is widely understood to provide the unique nature of judicial tenure. And Article III, Section 2, Clause 3 provides that trials, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by jury.
  2.  Jump to essay-2See Hon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Reflections on the Independence, Good Behavior, and Workload of Federal Judges the John R. Coen Lecture Series University of Colorado School of Law, 55 U. Colo. L. Rev. 1, 3 (1983).
  3.  Jump to essay-3See generally Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224, 237–38 (1993).
  4.  Jump to essay-4See discussion infra ArtIII.S1.2.1.3 Good Behavior Clause: Doctrine and Practice Good Behavior Clause: Doctrine and Practice. Article III, Section 1, also serves the essential purpose of protecting the independence of the judiciary and protecting litigants' rights to have claims adjudicated by an impartial judge free from the influence of another branch of government. Commodity Futures Trading Comm'n v. Schor, 478 U.S. 833, 849 (1986). Further, the clause bars congressional attempts to eliminate the role of constitutional courts by transferring jurisdiction to non-Article III courts, which guards against the aggrandizement of power by one branch of government over another. Id.