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On the Supreme Court, Youth Is No Guarantee of Longevity

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 17, 2017 12:15 PM

A president looking to make his mark on the Supreme Court, the logic goes, should nominate younger jurists for the bench. After all, a Neil Gorsuch, at age 49, is likely to have a few more years of adjudicating before him than, say, a 63-year-old Merrick Garland.

That common sense assumption is an accurate one, of course. Younger justices end up serving longer on average, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center. But there are a few important exceptions.

Youth Isn't Wasted on the Supreme Court

Pew analyzed the biographical data of all 104 former justices, excluding the eight currently sitting, and came to the completely unsurprising conclusion that the younger a justice is when he or she joins the Court, the longer his or her tenure.

Indeed, there was a pretty drastic difference between young justices and those a bit older:

Justices who were younger than 45 when they took the oath of office served an average of 21.6 years on the court; those who were ages 45 to 49 served an average of 19.4 years; and those 50 to 54 served an average of 18.6 years. Justices ages 55 to 59 served an average of 14.6 years, and those 60 or older served an average of 11.7 years.

An illustrative example is Justice Joseph Story, the youngest justice ever. Justice Story joined the Court in 1812, a baby-faced 32 year old. He stayed on until his death in 1845, for a tenure of 33 years, making him the 9th longest serving Supreme Court justice so far.

Justice Horace Lurton, by contrast, was the oldest new judge to join the Court, at age 65. He served only four years before dying of a heart attack. (Justice Charles Evans Hughes was appointed to the Court at age 68, but he had previously served on the Supreme Court for nearly six years before taking a break to act as Secretary of State.)

So Wise So Young, They Say, Do Never Live Long

There are, of course, many exceptions that prove the rule. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the Court at 60; she has since served almost 24 years. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., became a justice at 61, but did not leave the bench until he was 90.

Then there are those who join the bench young and leave early:

Alfred Moore, who took his oath in 1800 at the age of 44, served just 3.8 years. James Iredell, who was 38 when he joined the court in 1790, served 9.4 years. And John Jay, who was 43 when he became the nation's first chief justice in 1789, served 5.7 years before leaving the post to serve as governor of New York.

In sum, if you're taking bets on how long a new justice might last, age is a good indicator, but it's no sure thing.

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