The federal government of the United States of America, for example, gives all members of the Supreme Court, and all members of district courts and appeals courts, lifetime tenure, although conditioned upon good behavior. Other federal judges get substantial terms, such as fifteen years for judges of bankruptcy courts. Federal judges may be, and have been, impeached by Congress although this is commonly believed to be limited to removal for reasons of personal misconduct such as bribery, criminal conviction, or the like. Thus, a law-abiding Federal judge effectively has a life-time appointment.
Another prong of judicial independence is proper judicial selection. The American Bar Association, which advocates executive appointments of judges who have been cleared by screening committees (so-called "merit selection"), is at odds with many state legislatures which prefer election by the general public. The American Bar Association, and state bar associations generally, view judicial elections as rewarding political skills rather than legal skills.
Hybrid systems exist, but also are seen as having advantages and disadvantages. Virginia's General Assembly, for example, appoints State judges for 8-year terms, subject to renewal by the legislature. However, given that neither the public nor practicing attorneys are informed of pending renewals, and the General Assembly does not obtain information from either attorneys or past litigants, the renewal process lacks substantive information to inform the votes of legislators, and is accused of being merely political patronage from members of the Committees on Courts and Justice.
There are current political campaigns to make judges more accountable for allegedly bad decisions, meaning those that alletedly do not follow laws passed by the legislature, procedural rules, or precedents of higher courts, or the failure of judges to avoid conflicts of interest and bias, or lack of judicial temperament by judges in how they treat litigants in their courtrooms, or criminal sentences seen by some as too lenient or too harsh.
Referenda have been placed on state ballots to make judges more accountable, such as the J.A.I.L. initiative in South Dakota, which was not approved but engendered and continues to engender significant debate and efforts to promote similar ballot initiatives in other States.
In response to these calls for change to judicial independence, opponents of such change argue for the central importance, in their view, of an independent judiciary immune from political interference in the outcome of court cases.
The 2000 case of Bush v. Gore, in which a majority of the Supreme Court, including some appointees of the first President Bush, over-ruled challenges to the election of the President Bush then pending in the Florida Supreme Court, whose members had all been appointed by Democratic governors, is seen by many as reinforcing the need for judicial independence, both with regard to the Florida Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court. This case has focused increased attention on judicial outcomes as opposed to the traditional focus on judicial qualifications.
Both sides of this debate refer to the doctrine of separation of powers, yet interpret this concept in directly opposing ways. On one side of this debate, separation of powers means that no one branch may act unilaterally, but power is divided between the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Branches. That is, "checks and balances" should also apply to the Judicial Branch.
On the other side of this debate, separation of powers means that the Judiciary is independent and untouchable within the Judiciary's sphere. In this view, separation of powers requires that the Judiciary alone holds all powers relative to the Judicial function and the Legislative and Executive Branches may not interfere in any aspect of the Judicial Branch.
For example, the Florida Supreme Court maintains that only the Florida Supreme Court may license and regulate attorneys in Florida and set rules for the Florida courts. In other states, the power to regulate all professions -- including attorneys -- is held by the legislature although regulation of attorneys is delegated to the state Bar or state Supreme Court merely for convenience.
There are hybrid or compromise views as well. Current proposals by members of Congress such as Todd Akin and Trent Franks would require the immediate removal of judges for a failure to continue "during good behavior" as the Constitution provides, and would by statute define the meaning of "good behavior." This would result in the immediate removal of Federal judges for any misconduct without the need for impeachment.
The year 1997 saw a major shift towards judicial independence, as the Supreme Court of Canada in the Provincial Judges Reference found an unwritten constitutional norm guaranteeing judicial independence to all judges, including civil law inferior court judges. The unwritten norm is said to be implied by the preamble to the Constitution Act, 1867. Consequently, judicial compensation committees such as the Judicial Compensation and Benefits Commission now recommend judicial salaries in Canada.