How long do Supreme Court justices typically serve?

March 22, 2014
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Justice Ginsburg (center) stands with Justice Sotomayor (left) and Justice Kagan (right).

Justice Ginsburg (center) stands with Justice Sotomayor (left) and Justice Kagan (right).

Last week, Erwin Chemerinsky stated in an Los Angeles Times op-ed that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should retire at the end of this term.  Many have responded publicly both in favor and against his analysis.  Mr. Chemerinsky’s comments surround Justice Ginsburg’s advancing age (81) and the potential for Republicans to gain majority control of the Senate this November.  It is clear that with a court divided over many controversial issues, a swing of one vote could have significant and long-standing consequences.  Justice Ginsburg has served for 21 years.  On multiple occasions, she has voiced her desire to continue to serve and she has even mentioned that she wishes to remain on the bench for as long as a justice she looks to with great admiration, Louis Brandeis.  Justice Brandeis served for more than 22 years from 1916-1939.  At present, Justice Ginsburg needs to serve 657 more days to reach that goal.  However, during that approximately one year and nine months, the power to appoint a replacement with a similar ideology may shift markedly.  In recent history, we have witnessed justices retaining their seats for longer durations.  Over the history of the Supreme Court, the average length of service is 16 years, but since 1970, the average tenure has increased to 26 years.  Justice Scalia has been on the court for more than 27 years.  The longest serving justice of all time was William O. Douglas at more than 36 years.  The shortest serving justice was Thomas Johnson who served for just over five months in 1792-1793.  Term limits for Supreme Court justices have been suggested, however such restrictions would require a constitutional amendment.  In today’s highly polarized political environment, coupled with fewer Supreme Court vacancies, each opportunity to place a new justice on the bench will likely become even more acrimonious.

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