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Are Supreme Court Justices Living Longer?

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Yesterday Smart Politics challenged the popular notion that Presidents have been eying younger Supreme Court nominees in recent years, presumably to deepen their impact and legacy on the Supreme Court as the judicial branch has become seen as more partisan. But an analysis of U.S. Senate confirmation data found the average age of Supreme Court justices at the time of their confirmation has been fairly stable since the 1820s (about 54 years of age).

Although presidents are not getting notably younger justices seated on the Court, are those justices living longer and thus able to serve more years? If so, how much longer are they living?

To be sure, the life expectancy of Americans has increased dramatically during the past two centuries. As such, presidents nominating 54 year-old candidates for the bench today (such as Sonia Sodomayor) expect their nominee to live several more years than a justice who was confirmed in, say, the 1800s.

But is this so?

In Part 2 of an examination of the Court, Smart Politics finds that while the average life expectancy of Americans has doubled over the past 200+ years, from about 35 years to approximately 78 years, the difference in the life spans of Supreme Court justices over this period has been much narrower.

One hundred Supreme Court justices have served and died across the 220 years since the first justice was confirmed back in 1789, with the average life span of these 100 justices being 73.9 years.

Aggregated by decade of birth, the 29 justices who were born in the 1700s lived to an average ripe old age of 69.3 years – or about double the normal life expectancy of a white male of that era (approximately 35 years). All but five of these justices (James Wilson, James Iredell, Alfred Moore, Robert Trimble, Philip Barbour) lived at least to the age of 60.

The 60 justices born in the 1800s lived to an average age of 74.6 years old, with all but two (Joseph Lamar Rucker and Frank Murphy) reaching 60.

The 11 justices born in the 1900s who are now deceased lived to an average age of 81.8 years old – with every justice reaching 70.

Life Span of Deceased Supreme Court Justices by Century of Birth, 1700s-1900s

Century
# Justices
Age
1700s
29
69.3
1800s
60
74.6
1900s
11
81.8
Total
100
73.9
Note: Data from The Supreme Court Historical Society compiled by Smart Politics.

Perhaps due in large part to their privileged family background and lifestyle (generally and relatively speaking), members of the Supreme Court have always lived much longer lives than the public at large. Moreover, since presidents have not historically nominated many individuals that were less than 50 years old, such justices would, by definition, have already lived to a much older age than average Americans of their day.

Still, the difference is quite staggering.

Using Bureau of the Census life expectancy data, a Smart Politics analysis of the 42 deceased justices who were born after 1850 finds they lived an average of 34.1 years longer than the average American born in the year of their birth.

Three justices lived at least 50 years longer than average:

· FDR nominee Stanley Reed lived to the age of 95 years, which was 54 years longer than the life expectancy of a white male born in 1884 (41 years).
· FDR nominee James Byrnes lived to the age of 92 – 52 years longer than the average white male born in 1879.
· LBJ nominee Thurgood Marshall lived to the age of 84, which was 50 years longer than the average non-white male born in 1908.

Every Supreme Court justice born after 1850 lived at least 10 years longer than the average life expectancy of males in the year of their birth – and all but four at least 20 years longer.

Aggregated by decade, it is evident that justices of the Court have consistently lived long lives, even those born back in the 1700s and 1800s. In a stark example, the four justices born in the 1880s (Felix Frankfurter, Stanley Reed, Hugo Black, Harold Burton) lived to an average age of 84.5 years – more than double the life expectancy of the average white male born that decade (41 years).

Average Life Span of Deceased Supreme Court Justices by Decade of Birth, 1730s-1920s

Decade
# Justices
Age
1920s
2
84.5
1910s
3
75.0
1900s
7
85.0
1890s
9
69.6
1880s
4
84.5
1870s
4
78.3
1860s
7
78.4
1850s
7
73.0
1840s
5
79.0
1830s
7
75.6
1820s
5
68.0
1810s
7
75.4
1800s
6
72.3
1790s
3
78.0
1780s
6
68.2
1770s
4
66.3
1760s
3
68.3
1750s
5
67.6
1740s
4
67.0
1730s
5
70.4
Total
100
73.9
Note: Data from The Supreme Court Historical Society compiled by Smart Politics.

According to Bureau of the Census data, a non-white woman born in 1954 (the year Sonia Sotomayor was born) has a life expectancy of 64 years at birth.

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Previous post: Are Supreme Court Nominees Getting Younger?
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2 Comments


  • Interesting analysis, though I think the proper comparison though would be not to average life expectancy at birth but at time of appointment. Life expectancy is heavily skewed by infant/child mortality. That effect has decreased with improved public health, vaccines and antibiotics in later decades.

  • Hi Kipling,I understand where your coming from but infant mortality wouldn't play any part considering the expectancy of ordinary people were in their 30's so it should be pretty accurate even if the infant mortality rate was used in the figures it would be accurate.
    Considering Justices whom made it to adulthood was just as much at risk as a child as any other facing such risks.
    Health availability would play a part.
    One other thing I'd like to note however considering the TB outbreak in the early 1900's I'm surprised that the results are as high as they are.
    Perhaps some of the irradication of illnesses have offset the millions lost during the TB epidemic.

  • Leave a comment


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