Did You Know

How Long Do Supreme Court Justices Serve?

The average tenure for Supreme Court justice has been 16 years.

The constitution of the United States stipulates that the country’s judicial powers can only be exercised by the Supreme Court and other lower courts as deemed necessary by the Congress. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country whose membership include the Chief Justice and 8 associate justices as set by the 1869 Judiciary Act. The justices are presidential appointees and approved by the Senate before they can take up the oath of office. The quorum is constituted by six judges. The judicial power of the Supreme Court extends to all the cases in law, cases arising under the country’s constitution, and all cases affecting state officials like ministers and ambassadors.

Overview of the Supreme Court

During the writing of the constitution of the US, the powers and prerogative of the Supreme Court and the organization of the judicial branch were not well elaborated. Thus, the Congress had the task of developing the Federal Judiciary. The formation of the Federal Judiciary was a priority of the new government, leading to the establishment of the Judiciary Act of 1789. The Act led to the establishment of the Supreme Court which was to sit in Washington and was made up of the Chief Justice and five associate justices. Since the formation of the Supreme Court, the number of judges has changed six times before settling on the nine members in 1869. Since the formation of the court, only 17 people have been privileged to serve as the Chief Justice while 101 people have served as associate justices.

Appointment of Supreme Court Justices

The Chief Justice and the Associate Justices are presidential appointees but must be approved by the Senate. The nine justices have one vote each just as the Chief Justice. However, the Chief Justice has additional powers and administrative responsibilities that cannot be undertaken by the other justice. Thus, the Chief Justice is paid slightly higher than the associate justices. The seniority of the associate justices is by order of appointment, with the Chief Justice as the most senior. In case two of the justices are appointed at the same time, the older one is considered the senior of the two. The views of the justices are stated in the order of seniority. In case the Chief Justice is absent or cannot carry out his duties, the senior associate justice steps in.

Tenure of the Supreme Court Justices

The constitution specifies that the Supreme Court justices shall serve during “good behavior,” meaning that they shall serve for a lifetime. The provision ensures the independence of the judiciary and protects the justices from being partisans. The constitution also protects the salaries of the justices from being diminished while in office. Therefore, the Supreme Court Justices hold office from the day of appointment until the day they choose to and can only be removed from the office by impeachment. The Supreme Court Justices may choose to resign in case of health issues or for personal reasons that they need not share with the public. The average tenure for Supreme Court justice has been 16 years. However, some associate justices have served for as long as 36 years (William O Douglas), and as short as just over 5 months (Thomas Johnson).

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