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What is the Retirement Age for a Supreme Court Justice?

On Behalf of | Mar 27, 2015 | On the Radio

A caller from the local Swansea area asked, “What age limit do judges have to retire in the Supreme Court?”

Steven Sabra said that there is no age limit. In the state in Massachusetts there is an age limit of 70. The federal system, including not just the U.S. Supreme Court but the Federal Courts, are lifetime appointments. Sometimes judges in the Federal System, not the U.S. Supreme Court, will go on senior status and hear less cases. It is a big issue because when a U.S. Supreme Court judge steps off the bench then the president has to nominate someone then it has to go through a confirmation process with the Senate. People look very carefully and wonder what is going on because when one judge retires it changes the whole balance.

The Senate can stay until any age they want too, as long as they get elected. It is a debate that people always have about whether there should be term limits or not. On one hand, they should give other people a chance. But on the other hand, it is a very sensitive issue to say to someone that they cannot remain in the Senate because they are not with it anymore. It is difficult to make that determination.

Six Facts About Retirement in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court was established in 1789 as the highest federal court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all federal courts and state court cases involving issues of federal law. They handle severe personal injury cases, such as catastrophic accidents, and wrongful death. In the United States legal system, the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of the federal constitutional law, but may only act in the context of a case in which it has jurisdiction.

The average age at which a Supreme Court justice retires is 78.

Since there is no age limit for a justice of the Supreme Court to retire, often times they stay as long as they possibly can. It is not very typical for a justice to even retire, as many more die while in office. But of those who did opt for retirement, the average age of a justice when they do chose to retire is 78.7. Before 1971, the average age of a Supreme Court justice was 68.3. The average retirement age has grown a whopping 10.3 years in that time and is only expected to increase as justices are now retiring later and later in their careers. To put how late of a retirement this currently is into perspective, today the typical American retires at the age of 62. That is 16.7 more years of work than your everyday American.

Only 56 of the 103 justices to have left the Supreme Court was due to retirement.

Since the Supreme Court was first established back in 1789, leaving by way of retirement is not a popular choice amongst justices. In total, 103 justices have left the Supreme Court, only 56 of them decided to retire, while the other 47 died while in office. Although that is a high amount of deaths in office and retirement is delayed as long as possible, dying in office has become far less popular in the past century. In fact, only one justice has died, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, passing at the age of 80, while still serving in the Supreme Court since 1955.

Justices are more likely to die in office if the president is not of the same party as the president who appointed them.

Often times a justice will choose to remain in office instead of retire if the incumbent president is not of the same political party as the president who had first appointed them to the Supreme Court. A study back in 2010 proved this to be true by showing that statistically Supreme Court justices are 168 percent more likely to retire if the incumbent president at the time of their departure is of the same political party as the president who originally appointed them. It also shows that most retirements occur within the first two years of a president’s four year term.

46 percent of justices left the Supreme Court during a presidency that shared partisanship.

From 1953 to 2010, 46 percent of Supreme Court justices left while the incumbent president was of the same partisanship. 56 percent of the justices, 14 out of 26, were replaced by another justice of a similar ideology. Some people scrutinize this by saying if Supreme Court justices want to provide co-partisanship presidents with the opportunity to replace those leaving with co-partisan successors then they are failing roughly half the time.

The last time a Democratic president appointed a justice with a Republican Senate was in 1895.

You may have been wondering when, or even if at all, the last time a Democratic president appointed a Republican Supreme Court justice? The answer is way back in 1895. The president to do it was Democrat Grover Cleveland who received a Supreme Court nomination through a Republican Senate. Then you may be wondering if it has happened the other way around, and it has. In fact, Republican presidents have had 12 Supreme Court nominees approved by Democratic Senate.

Although it has been a while since a Democratic president has appointed a justice with a Republican Senate, if Republicans were to take back the Senate and a Supreme Court vacancy were to be made under a Democratic president’s term, the president would be in a circumstance where they would have to do something that has not been done in 120 years, pick a Republican nominee.

Some justices delayed their retirement for their own political reasons, but to little avail.

Several justices, namely Thurgood Marshall, John Marshall, Hugo Black, and William Douglas, had all expressed interest in delaying their retirement for as long as they could until a president of their same political party could appoint their successor. Although there were some justices that did this with success, that was not the case for many. Most of them had succumb to death or illness.

Sabra and Aspden Law Offices have been serving the greater Fall River, Somerset, Swansea, New Bedford, and Assonet areas for over 35 years. They are Southern New England’s best personal injury and catastrophic injury attorneys.