How Long Do Supreme Court Justices Serve?

The U.S. Supreme Court

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The U.S. Constitution states that once confirmed by the Senate, a justice serves for life. He or she is not elected and does not need to run for office, although they may retire if they wish. This means that Supreme Court justices can serve through multiple presidential terms. That was intended to at least partly insulate the justices so they need not take politics into account when making Constitutional decisions that will affect the entire U.S. population for decades or even centuries.

Fast Facts: How Long Do Supreme Court Justices Serve?

  • After being seated on the Supreme Court bench, justices may serve for life or retire as they wish.
  • They may be impeached for "improper behavior," but only two have been impeached and only one of those was removed from office.
  • The average length on the court is 16 years; 49 justices died in office, 56 retired.

How Long Do They Serve?

Since Justices are able to stay as long as they choose on the Supreme Court bench, there are no term limits. Of the 114 justices who have sat on the bench since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, 49 died in office; the last to do so was Antonin Scalia in 2016. Fifty-six retired, the latest being Anthony Kennedy in 2018. The average length of stay is about 16 years.

Supreme Court Justices can be impeached and removed from the court if they do not maintain “good behavior.” Only two Supreme Court Justices have ever been impeached. John Pickering (served 1795–1804) was charged with mental instability and intoxication on the bench and was impeached and removed from office on March 12, 1804. Samuel Chase (1796–1811) was impeached on March 12, 1804—the same day Pickering was removed—for what the Congress considered seditious remarks and "improper behavior" in and out of court. Chase was acquitted and stayed in office until his death on June 19, 1811. 

Current Supreme Court Figures

As of 2019, the Supreme Court is made up of the following individuals; the date included is the day each took his or her seat.

Chief Justice: John G. Roberts, Jr., September 29, 2005

Associate Justices:

Legal Make-Up of the Supreme Court

According to SupremeCourt.gov, "The Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and such number of Associate Justices as may be fixed by Congress. The number of Associate Justices is currently fixed at eight. Power to nominate the Justices is vested in the President of the United States, and appointments are made with the advice and consent of the Senate. Article III, §1 of the Constitution further provides that "[t]he Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office."

The number of associate justices on the court over the years has varied from five to nine. The most current number, eight, was established in 1869.

Fun Facts About Supreme Court Justices

Supreme Court Justices have an extraordinarily important role to play in interpreting the U.S. Constitution. It has only been recently, however, that Justices have included women, non-Christians, or non-whites. Here are some fast, fun facts about America's Supreme Court Justices over the years.

  • Total number of Justices: 114
  • Average length of tenure: 16 years
  • Longest-serving Chief Justice: John Marshall (more than 34 years)
  • Shortest serving Chief Justice: John Rutledge (just 5 months and 14 days under a temporary commission)
  • Longest-serving Associate Justice: William O. Douglas (almost 37 years)
  • Shortest serving Associate Justice: John Rutledge (1 year and 18 days)
  • Youngest Chief Justice when appointed: John Jay (44 years old)
  • Oldest Chief Justice when appointed: Harlan F. Stone (68 years old)
  • Youngest Associate Justice when appointed: Joseph Story (32 years old)
  • Oldest Associate Justice when appointed: Horace Lurton (65 years old)
  • Oldest person to serve on the Supreme Court: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr (90 years old on retirement)
  • Only person to serve as both Chief Justice and U.S. president: William Howard Taft
  • First Jewish Supreme Court Justice: Louis D. Brandeis (served 1916–1939)
  • First African American Supreme Court Justice: Thurgood Marshall (1967–1991)
  • First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice: Sonia Sotomayor (2009–Present)
  • First female Supreme Court Justice: Sandra Day O'Connor (1981–2006)
  • Most recent foreign-born Justice: Felix Frankfurter, born in Vienna, Austria (1939–1962)

Sources

  • Current Members. Supreme Court of the United States. SupremeCourt.gov
  • McCloskey, Robert G., and Sanford Levinson. "The American Supreme Court," Sixth Edition. Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • "More than 2 centuries of Supreme Court justices, in 18 numbers." Nation: Public Broadcasting System News Hour, July 9, 2018.  
  • "Samuel Chase Impeached." Federal Judicial Center.gov. 
  • Schwartz, Bernard. "A History of the Supreme Court." New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Warren, Charles. "The Supreme Court in United States History," three volumes. 1923 (published by Cosimo Classics 2011).