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Are Supreme Court Nominees Getting Younger?

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Many commentators and political analysts have speculated that Barack Obama's nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court was based not only on his agreement with her judicial philosophy, but also her gender, ethnicity (Hispanic), and youth (54 years old).

In fact, political observers have made note of the relative youth of other recent nominees at the time of their Senate confirmation, such as Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005 (50) and Clarence Thomas in 1991 (43).

The conventional wisdom is that as the nomination and appointment process of Supreme Court justices has become more and more political (along with the decision-making of the Court itself), the more likely it is that Presidents will nominate men and women to the bench that are youthful. Younger, and thus, more likely than not, longer-serving justices, maximize the opportunities for the president to have a greater legacy in shaping the judicial (and political) philosophy of the Court.

But are Supreme Court Nominees getting younger?

Not exactly.

A Smart Politics analysis of the 110 Supreme Court Justices (and 112 confirmations) in U.S. history finds Sotomayor to actually be slightly older (54.9 years) than the average age of all justices, past and present, at the time of their respective confirmation (52.8 years).

Moreover, the average age of successful nominees has actually been getting older in recent decades.

· In the 1980s, the average age for the three justices confirmed (Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy) was 50.7 years.

· That number increased to 52.3 years in the 1990s, when four justices were confirmed (Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas, David Souter).

· The average age at the time of confirmation for Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito was 52.5 years. If Sotomayor, who turns 55 this month, is confirmed, that would raise the average age to confirmed nominees in the 2000s to 53.3 years.

Taking a longer view reveals justices confirmed today to be virtually the same age as those confirmed in the early and mid 1900s. The average age of the 45 Supreme Court justices who took the bench from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (in 1902) through John Stevens (in 1975) was 54.9 years old - the precise age of Sotomayor.

Still, since the 1900s, the three decades with the youngest justices at the time of confirmation are the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. In fact, one has to go back to the 1860s (50.4 years) to find a decade with a younger crop of nominees.

And while the six decades with the lowest average age of Supreme Court justices at the onset of their service all took place between the 1780s and the 1860s, it is also true that the life expectancy was about half then as it is today – virtually necessitating the nomination of younger justices to the Court. (According to the Bureau of the Census, the average life expectancy at birth for a white male in 1850 was 38.3 years, compared to over 75 years today).

Average Age of Supreme Court Justices at Time of Confirmation by Decade, 1780s-2000s

Decade
Confirmations
Age
2000s
2
52.5
1990s
4
52.3
1980s
3
50.7
1970s
4
56.8
1960s
5
54.6
1950s
5
53.2
1940s
8
53.5
1930s
7
54.7
1920s
5
57.6
1910s
7
53.7
1900s
4
57.8
1890s
7
55.0
1880s
6
57.3
1870s
5
56.2
1860s
5
50.4
1850s
3
45.3
1840s
4
54.0
1830s
7
51.1
1820s
2
52.0
1810s
2
45.0
1800s
5
42.4
1790s
10
50.4
1780s
2
45.0
Total
112
52.8
Note: Data from The Supreme Court Historical Society compiled by Smart Politics.

The average age for the nine justices comprising the current court was 52.2 years at the time of their respective confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

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2 Comments


  • While your analysis certainly seems correct if we accept absolute age as a relevant standard, maybe these numbers should be recalculated as the person's age as compared to the average life expectancy (for that decade), or perhaps simply the average life span of nominees from the previous decade? While the average age from the 1790s is the same as the average age from the 1980s, people were expected to live much longer in the 1980s then they were in the 1790s.

  • > maybe these numbers should be recalculated as the person's
    > age as compared to the average life expectancy (for that
    > decade)

    I agree - and there is a blog forthcoming here that will delve more into the life expectancy issue (which i raise in the paragraph above the table).

    Though, it may be interesting to note that the life expectancy at birth for Sonia Sotomayor (non-white female) was 64 years (9 years from her confirmation, should that be forthcoming).

  • Leave a comment


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