The Supreme Court


Forty-nine of the justices have been officeholders at the state or federal level. Sixty have worked at one time or another for the federal government, thirty-five of them in the executive branch. Thirteen have served in Congress and six in their state legislatures. Another thirteen were primarily corporation lawyers before appointment to the bench, and eight were primarily in private legal practice. Four were law professors—all of them appointed by Franklin Roosevelt: Harlan Fiske Stone (Chief Justice), Felix Frankfurter, Owen J. Roberts, and William O. Douglas. On the current Court, Associate Justices White and Rehnquist served in the office of the United States Attorney General, Mr. Justice Brennan on the New Jersey Supreme Court, and Mr. Justice Powell as a lawyer in private practice before appointment.

  • • Only four associate justices have been promoted to Chief Justice: two directly—Edmund D. White and Harlan Fiske Stone—and two who returned after first resigning from the Court—John Rutledge and Charles Evans Hughes.
  • • The average age of associate justices at the time of their appointment is 52.5; the median age is 54. Four men were appointed in their 30’s, eleven in their 60’s. The youngest appointed were Joseph Story and William Johnson, both 32. Each served more than thirty years. The oldest associate justice at appointment was Horace Lurton, age 65. He served four years.
  • • The average age of Chief Justices at the time of their appointment is 57.5—which is also the median. Two men were in their 40’s; six were in their 60’s. The youngest Chief Justice was John Jay at 44. He served five years. The oldest was Harlan Fiske Stone at 68. He served four years.
  • • On the current Court the median age is 68.

Tenure on the Court is for life “during good Behaviour.” This provision of Article m of the Constitution is the principal source of judicial independence at all levels of the federal system and means that except for removal through impeachment judges are free to serve as long as they wish. There is no provision for the removal of sick or disabled justices on the Supreme Court; the decision to leave the bench is thus a matter of individual conscience.

Like others in the federal judiciary, the justices of the Supreme Court may retire at age 65 on completion of fifteen years’ continuous service or at age 70 on completion of ten years’ continuous service. In either case retirement pay is full salary for life. Justices retiring because of” disability and with less than ten years’ service receive half pay !or the remainder of their lives. The widows of Supreme Court justices are currently entitled to $10,UUO annually (up from $5,000 in 1972).

Among the ninety-one justices who have left the Court to date, forty-eight died in ofhcc, twenty-three retired, sixteen resigned, three were disabled, and one, John Rutledge, was !ejected by the Senate even though he had served one month as Chief Justice while Congress was in recess.

  • • Among all 91 past justices the length of service has averaged 14.8 years; the median is 15 years. Fifty-two justices served 15 years or longer; 28 served 20 or more; 9 served 30 or more years.
  • • Chief Justice John Marshall served 34 years, as did Associate Justices Stephen J. Field and Hugo Black. Associate Justices Joseph Story and John Harlan each served 33 years. (The record for service is held by an associate justice on the current Court, William O. Douglas, who in April, 1975, completed his thirty-sixth year on the bench.)
  • • Twelve past associate justices of the Court served 4 years or less.
  • • Among the 14 Chief Justices who have left the Court, the average age at the end of service was 69.9, the median age 73. Four men were over 77. The oldest Chief Justice was Roger B. Taney at 87.
  • • Among associate justices the average age at the end of service was 67.7; the median age was 70. Four of them left the Court in their 40’s; 11 left in their 50’s, 33 in their 70’s, and 6 in their 80’s. The oldest associate justice was Oliver Wendell Holmes, who retired at 90.

In this century six justices have resigned from the Court: Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 to run for President (he returned as Chief Justice in 1930); John H. Clarke in 1922 to work for world peace; James Byrnes in 1942 to head a succession of wartime agencies, ending as Secretary of State; Owen J. Roberts in 1945 to become dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School; Arthur Goldberg in 1965 to become United States ambassador to the United Nations; and Abe Fortas in 1969 to return to private law practice.

Since 1789 only one Supreme Court justice has been impeached. In 1804 the Jeffcrsonian Republicans in the House charged that the arch-Federalist Samuel Chase had made political remarks from the bench that impaired “confidence and respect for the courts.” Chase was acquitted by the Senate.

Among recent retirements perhaps the most notable was (hat of Tom (Hark in 1907, who applied for early retirement in order to avoid any conflict of interest in cases brought to the Court by his son, Ramsey Clark, who had been appointed Attorney General by President Lyndon Johnson.