US Supreme Court Retirement Benefits

A Full Salary for Life

The chambers of the US Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court Prepares For New Term. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Retiring U.S. Supreme Court justices are entitled to a lifetime pension equal to their highest full salary. In order to qualify for a full pension, retiring justices must have served for a minimum of 10 years provided the sum of the justice's age and years of Supreme Court service totals 80.

As of January 2020, associate justices of the Supreme Court earned an annual salary of $265,600, while the chief justice was paid $277,000.

Supreme Court associate justices who decide to retire at age 70, after 10 years on the job, or at age 65 with 15 years of service is eligible to receive their full highest salary – usually their salary at retirement for the rest of their lives. In return for this lifetime pension, judges who retire in relatively good health with no disabilities are required to remain active in the legal community, performing a minimum specified amount of judicial obligations every year.

Why a Lifetime Full Salary?

The United States Congress established the retirement for Supreme Court justices at full salary in the Judiciary Act of 1869, the same law that settled the number of justices at nine. Congress felt that since Supreme Court justices, like all federal judges, are well paid and appointed for life; a lifetime pension at full salary would encourage judges to retire rather than attempting to serve during extended periods of poor health and potential senility. Indeed, fear of death and decreased mental capacity are often cited as motivating factors in judges' decisions to retire.

President Franklin Roosevelt summed Congress' reasoning up in his Fireside Chat of March 9, 1937, when he stated, "We think it so much in the public interest to maintain a vigorous judiciary that we encourage the retirement of elderly judges by offering them a life pension at full salary."

Contrary to the assertion of a pervasive social media myth, retired members of Congress—Senators and Representatives—do not get their full salary for life. Among all elected and appointed U.S. government officials, that “ full salary for life” retirement benefit is awarded only to Supreme Court justices.

Other Benefits

A good salary with an exceptionally good retirement plan is far from the only benefit to being appointed the Supreme Court. Among the others are:

Health Care

Federal judges are covered by the Federal Employee Health Benefits system. Federal judges are also free to acquire private health and long-term care insurance.

Job Security

All Supreme Court justices are appointed by the President of the United States, with the approval of the U.S. Senate, for a lifetime term. As specified on Article III, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court Justices “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour,” meaning they can only be removed from the Court if they are impeached by the House of Representatives and removed if convicted in a trial held in the Senate. To date, only one Supreme Court justice has been impeached by the House. Justice Samuel Chase was impeached by the House in 1805 based on charges of allowing political partisanship to influence his decisions. Chase was subsequently acquitted by the Senate.

Due to the security of their lifetime terms, Supreme Court justices, unlike any of the other presidentially-appointed, high-level federal bureaucrats, a free to make decisions without fear that doing so will cost them their jobs.

Vacation Time and Workload Help

How does three months per year off with full salary sound to you? The Supreme Court’s annual term includes a three-month recess, typically from July 1 through September 30. Justices receive the annual recess as vacation, with no judicial obligations and may use the free time as they see fit.

When the Supreme Court is in session actively accepting, hearing, and deciding cases, the Justices receive extensive assistance from law clerks that read and prepare detailed summaries for the justices of the massive volume of material sent to the Court by other judges, lower courts, and lawyers. The clerks – whose jobs are highly prized and sought-after, also help the justices write their opinions on cases. Besides the highly technical writing, this job alone requires days of detailed legal research.

Prestige, Power, and Fame

For American judges and lawyers, there can be no more prestigious role in the legal profession than serving on the Supreme Court. Through their written decisions and statements on landmark cases, they become known worldwide, often with their names becoming household words. In possessing the power to overturn the actions of Congress and the President of the United States through their decisions, Supreme Court justices directly impact American history, as well as the day-to-day lives of the people. For example, landmark Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in public schools or Roe v. Wade, which recognized that the constitutional right to privacy extends to a woman’s right to have an abortion, will continue to affect American society for decades. 

How Long do Justices Usually Serve?

Since it was established in 1789, a total of only 114 people have served on the U.S. Supreme Court. Of those, 55 justices served until they retired, with 35 having retired since 1900. Another 45 justices have died in office. Over history, Supreme Court justices have served for an average of 16 years.

The longest-serving associate justice so far has been William O. Douglas, who before retiring on November 12, 1975, served for 36 years, 7 months, and 8 days after being appointed at age 40.

The longest-serving Chief Justice was Chief Justice John Marshall who served for 34 years, 5 months and 11 days from 1801 to 1835 before dying in office. At the other extreme, Chief Justice John Rutledge, who was appointed in 1795 through a temporary Senate recess appointment, served for only 5 months and 14 days before the Senate reconvened and rejected his nomination.

The oldest person to serve as a Supreme Court justice was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was 90 when he retired from the court in 1932.

As of February 2020, the oldest justices on the current Supreme Court are 86-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 81-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer. Despite having undergone successful treatment for pancreatic cancer in 2019, Justice Ginsburg has stated she has no plans to retire from the court.

Why Supreme Court Justices Can Serve for Life

To ensure an independent Judiciary and to—at least in theory—prevent judges from swaying to political partisan pressures, Article III of the U.S. Constitution provides that federal judges serve during “good Behaviour,” which has generally meant life terms. To further assure their independence, the Constitution provides that judges’ salaries may not be diminished while they are in office.

Article III established the judicial branch of the U.S. government by vesting the judicial power of the United States in “one supreme Court” and any lower courts Congress decides to establish over time. The Supreme Court is the highest court and ultimate authority for deciding all controversies arising under U.S. law, including controversies regarding the constitutional validity of existing laws, both state and federal. Although Article III leaves it to Congress to decide how to organize and staff its courts, it does specify that its judges “shall hold their office during good behavior.”

The specific legal meaning of “good behavior” has long been debated. Some judicial scholars suggest it refers to the opposite of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” behavior that can lead to the impeachment of other elected or appointed federal officials. However, federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, can be removed through impeachment. 

To date, only one Supreme Court justice has been impeached. In 1804, Samuel Chase, who had been appointed by President George Washington, was impeached by the House of Representatives for his allegedly politically partisan rulings. However, the Senate failed to convict him, and Chase went on to serve until he died in 1811.

Other Supreme Court justices have also been unsuccessfully targeted for impeachment, including the now-revered Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was appointed in 1953 under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The Warren Court came to disappoint the Republican Party with decisions such as 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which prohibited de jure racial segregation in schools. However, the resulting “Impeach Earl Warren” movement never gained enough steam to influence lawmakers. 

The Constitution’s framers believed it was essential to create a federal judiciary that would be independent of the waves of public opinion. . “If they [federal judges] had to be reappointed or reelected,” suggests Michael R. Dimino Sr., Professor of Law at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, “they would have to worry that unpopular decisions could cost them their jobs.”

As of January 2020, the oldest Supreme Court justices were 86-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 81-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer. Despite enduring a long battle against cancer, Justice Ginsburg continued to serve on the court until her death at age 87 on September 18, 2020. Justice Breyer announced on January 26, 2022, that he would retire from the court at the end of its current session in the summer of 2022. Retiring at age 83, Breyer served nearly 27 years on the Supreme Court.

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Longley, Robert. "US Supreme Court Retirement Benefits." ThoughtCo, Apr. 16, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, April 16). US Supreme Court Retirement Benefits. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "US Supreme Court Retirement Benefits." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).