Justices, Tenure, and What to Expect Moving Forward

A ninth Justice sits on the Supreme Court today for oral arguments for the first time in over a year.  Justice Gorsuch at 49 years of age has the potential to fill the seat previously occupied by Justice Scalia for years to come.  Gorsuch is on the younger end of the age spectrum for Supreme Court Justices but isn’t the youngest Justice by a long-shot.  Twenty-six jurists have been confirmed to the Court when nominated at 48 years of age or younger (ten others were nominated at younger than 48 but not confirmed).  The youngest two were Justice Story at age 32 in 1811 and Justice William Johnson at age 32 in 1804 (so much for the complaints about younger nomination ages in the modern Supreme Court).  On the other end of the spectrum two individuals were nominated while into their 70’s (Caleb Cushing at 73 in 1874 and William Smith at 75 in 1837) but neither was confirmed. The oldest age at nomination of a confirmed Justice was Justice Lurton at age 65 in 1909.

As the average age for confirmed (and all) nominees to the Court is 53, Gorsuch still fits in several years below this threshold.  If it wasn’t already apparent this post looks at Justice’s age demographics to paint a picture of what we might expect from our newest Justice.

How have Justices’ ages at time of nomination changed across the Court’s history?  The graphs below show that over time the age at nomination has increased (on the left) but these ages have declined about five years on average since the beginning of the 20th century (on the right).

Based on the Court’s history, we might expect Justice Gorsuch to remain on the Court for around 16 years or until he is approximately 65. This trend is shown in the following graph

Plot 14

If we look to the average ages that Justices have left the Court for any reason for those appointed after 1950, this number jumps a few years to age 69.  This trend is charted below with Justices ages when they left the Court on the vertical axis and the year Justices were confirmed to the Court on the horizontal axis.

Sheet 7.png

The red dots are for Justices that died in office while the yellow ones are for Justices that left for other reasons.

What does this all mean for Trump? With Justices now lasting on the Court for more years and until they are older does this mean that Gorsuch is likely to be Trump’s only SCOTUS nomination? Not according to some who believe Trump will be able to fill multiple vacancies on the Court.  If we look over time to all Justices confirmed to the Court or elevated from Associate to Chief Justice, we see that the average time between appointments has increased only minimally to around two years (the Justices are listed sequentially in the order in which they were nominated/elevated and the minimum of zero years is when two Justices were confirmed within the same year).

Plot 18.png

There is speculation that several of the Justices may leave the Court over the next few years with Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg topping this list.  Presidents average an appointment every two or so years which corroborates the likelihood that Trump will have at least one more nomination during this presidential term.

Plot 21.png

As these figures are all based on historical averages though they do not dictate the Court’s future. Perhaps things will change and these norms will not hold up during the current presidency.  Then again, perhaps Trump will have a chance to make this Court more conservative than any other recent Supreme Court.

On Twitter: @AdamSFeldman

Data from the Supreme Court Justices Database used in this post

10 Comments Add yours

  1. CC says:

    There is something wrong with your “Confirmed Justices per President” chart. It shows President Trump having one confirmation (correct), but several of the other presidents are incorrect. President George H.W. Bush had two confirmations, not four. President Reagan had four confirmations, not one.


    1. Adam Feldman says:

      This dataframe composing the graph was misaligned. It is now fixed.


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