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Why Supreme Court justices serve longer

John Sides brings some political science to the question of whether Supreme Court justices should have fixed, rather than lifelong, terms. By now, you've likely heard that the average justice's tenure has increased from 15 years to 26 years. Here's why:

First, any changes in the tenure of justices over time is not due to an increase in the number of justices serving long terms. There have always been those justices on the Court. Instead, there has been a decrease in the number of short-term justices, as the title of the article suggests. This is what a measure like “average tenure” conceals.[...]

Second, justices tend to serve short terms because of illness and death in many cases but, in others, because of higher ambition (John Jay), dissatisfaction with the job (Jay again, also Minton), and occasionally scandal (Fortas).

Third, and consequently, the disappearance of the short-term justice is not just a function of better medical treatments and longer lifespans. (There were plenty of people living long lives and serving long terms on the Court, even in the early years of the United States.) It is also a function of this simple fact: serving on the Court is a much better job these days.

More at the link. The nickel version is that long-serving justices aren't new. It's the disappearance of short-serving justices that's new. And the reason for that is not just advances in lifespan, but advances in the cushiness and prestige of the court.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 11, 2010; 9:32 AM ET
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Considering the activism of the conservative justices in recent years, Obama should simply add two more justices to the court. Where in the Constitution would it prohibit him doing that? Of course, I know he won't do it. Like all Dems, he is too afraid of upsetting the system.

Posted by: lauren2010 | August 11, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Interesting. And, also, duh. Who wouldn't want to spend 30+ years in an extremely prestigious, powerful, and relatively well-paying job? Especially one where you your actual work hours are limited to 3 days a week, and then only mornings? Oh, and you also get 1/3 of the year off entirely.

Plus, there's a court carpenter to build you a custom chair.

Posted by: JEinATL | August 11, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

JEinATL, and you get law clerks that do a lot of your work for you anyway. Plus, the job seems to keep them going and keep them sharp. Retired justices haven't faired particularly well in the past, though I guess we'll see how Souter, Stevens, and O'Conner fare.

Posted by: MosBen | August 11, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Yes, I forgot to add that every year, you get to select four of the best minds in the world to do most of your heavy lifting. And most of them will go on to distinguished careers, thereby enhancing your circle of influence and prestige.

It really is the perfect job.

Posted by: JEinATL | August 11, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse


You do realize that FDR tried and failed to do exactly that, right?

Posted by: lol-lol | August 11, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Just because the job is high status today does not mean that it will be high status in the future. It might revert to its historical mean just as housing prices seem to be doing.
Perhaps a few more decisions like "citizens united" will cause our society to create greater limits to the power of the justices and other options will become more desirable in their paths to power.

Posted by: karenfink | August 11, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

"It really is the perfect job."

...until it hits you that you have a lifetime appointment to be in daily contact with the insufferable personalities of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 11, 2010 8:21 PM | Report abuse

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