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Supreme Court terms have been getting longer. Here's why.

We're already seeing shortlists for who could replace Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court after his death February 13. And most of those names, as well as previous nominees, have something in common: They're between the ages of 50 and 60.

There is no age requirement to be a Supreme Court justice, as opposed to the US House, Senate, or presidency. But given the time it takes to build up a résumé worthy of a Supreme Court nomination, it seems a lawyer is unlikely to be considered for the highest court before his or her late 40s.

Long Supreme Court terms aren't new. But they're becoming the norm.

The average length of a justice's term has been getting longer — especially for justices confirmed after 1965. A justice who began his term from 1915 to 1965 spent an average of 15 years on the Court. But those who started between 1966 and the present (not counting current justices) were on the court for an average of 24 years.

So why is this?

From a numbers perspective, it's because multi-decade terms have become the norm. In the first 175 years of this country, these extremely long terms did exist, but it was also common to see terms shorter than a decade. But increased politicization of the Supreme Court and longer life expectancies have made multi-decade terms the expectation.

So if a 50-year-old justice is nominated, it's much more likely he or she will serve 25 to 30 years.

If we compare justices who were confirmed 50 years before and after 1965, the difference is stark.

Of those confirmed from 1915 to 1965, 12 of the 29 ended up serving for less than 10 years. Of those confirmed from 1966 to the present day, every single one has served at least 10 years, except for newer justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who both appear to be on their way to hit that mark as well.

These longer terms have led some to argue that we should have term limits for Supreme Court judges. But for now, they can serve as long as they please, much like a pope.

So who is older: justices, popes, or presidents?

  • Both Supreme Court justices and popes tend to start their tenure late in life. But I looked at all popes since 1404 and found that the average pope starts his term at 63, which is a decade after the average Supreme Court justice at 53.
  • The current pope, Francis, began his term at 76, which is much later than most.
  • US presidents tend to start their terms in their 50s. The average start age is 55, which is older than the average Supreme Court justice (53).
  • The oldest age at which any president began his term was 69. That was Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton would be 69 and Donald Trump would be 70 when sworn in if either were to win the White House. Bernie Sanders would be 75. A quick history lesson: You have to be at least 35 to be president.

Popes' and justices' terms end at about the same time

  • Because justices have lifetime appointments, the majority of them serve well into their 70s, and a handful serve into their 80s. The average justice ends his or her term at 70. (John Paul Stevens and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. are the only two who served into their 90s.)
  • The papacy is a lifetime position too. Most Supreme Court justices retire, but most popes stay in their position until death. In fact, the previous pope, Benedict XVI, was the first to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.
  • The average pope ends his papacy at age 72.
  • Modern medicine seems to have led to longer terms. The past 10 popes, not including the current one, held office until age 80. The past 10 justices, not taking into account current justices, have been on the bench until age 78.
  • On average, US presidents' terms have ended at age 60. This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison with justices and popes, though, since the 22nd Amendment established a two-term limit for presidents. Before that, a handful of people tried to serve more than two terms, but only Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to do so, and he served for 12 years and died in office.

So on average, a Supreme Court justice starts his or her term at the same time as a president and ends at about the same time as a pope.

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