Go to HHH home page.
Smart Politics
 


Are Supreme Court Justices Living Longer?

Bookmark and Share

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.

Follow Smart Politics on Twitter.

Previous post: Are Supreme Court Nominees Getting Younger?
Next post: From T-Paw to J-Ram: Is Jim Ramstad the GOP's Answer in 2010?

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


    Remains of the Data

    Which States Have the Longest and Shortest Election Day Voting Hours?

    Residents in some North Dakota towns have less than half as many hours to cast their ballots as those in New York State.

    Political Crumbs

    Does My Key Still Work?

    Much has been made about Charlie Crist's political transformation from Republican to independent to Democrat en route to winning the Florida GOP and Democratic gubernatorial nominations over a span of eight years. Party-switching aside, Crist is also vying to become just the second Florida governor to serve two interrupted terms. Democrat William Bloxham was the first - serving four year terms from 1881 to 1885 and then 1897 to 1901. Florida did not permit governors serving consecutive terms for most of its 123 years prior to changes made in its 1968 constitution. Since then four have done so: Democrats Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, and Lawton Chiles and Republican Jeb Bush.


    No 100-Year Curse for Roberts

    Defeating his Tea Party primary challenger Milton Wolf with just 48.1 percent of the vote, Pat Roberts narrowly escaped becoming the first elected U.S. Senator from Kansas to lose a renomination bid in 100 years. The last - and so far only - elected U.S. Senator to lose a Kansas primary was one-term Republican Joseph Bristow in 1914. Bristow was defeated by former U.S. Senator Charles Curtis who went on to win three terms before becoming Herbert Hoover's running mate in 1928. Only one other U.S. Senator from the Sunflower State has lost a primary since the passage of the 17th Amendment: Sheila Frahm in 1996. Frahm was appointed to fill Bob Dole's seat earlier that year and finished 13.2 points behind Sam Brownback in the three-candidate primary field. Overall, incumbent senators from Kansas have won 29 times against two defeats in the direct vote era. (Curtis also lost a primary in 1912 to Walter Stubbs, one year before the nation moved to direct elections).


    more POLITICAL CRUMBS

    Humphrey School Sites
    CSPG
    Humphrey New Media Hub

    Issues />

<div id=
    Abortion
    Afghanistan
    Budget and taxes
    Campaign finances
    Crime and punishment
    Economy and jobs
    Education
    Energy
    Environment
    Foreign affairs
    Gender
    Health
    Housing
    Ideology
    Immigration
    Iraq
    Media
    Military
    Partisanship
    Race and ethnicity
    Reapportionment
    Redistricting
    Religion
    Sexuality
    Sports
    Terrorism
    Third parties
    Transportation
    Voting