Except for newcomers John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito Jr., the current Supreme Court justices have been on the Court between 13 and 32 years. And since 1970, none of the 12 justices who have left the Court had served for fewer than 15 years.
But as a new study published in Perspectives on Politics points out, the Court has not always been filled with long-timers. It used to be that for a variety of reasons -- ambition, boredom, illness or scandal -- justices often served for eight years or less.
Sherman Minton (pictured at right) served seven years before illness struck in 1956. In 1922, Justice John Clarke (ever heard of him?) left out of frustration after six years; he told Justice Louis Brandeis he would be much happier working toward getting the U.S. to join the League of Nations "than if I continue to devote my time to determining... whether the digging of a ditch in Iowa was constitutional or not."
Authors Justin Crowe of Pomona College and Christopher Karpowitz of Brigham Young University, both political scientists, have decidedly mixed feelings about whether the trend away from short-timers is good or bad. "The short-timers are not a distinguished lot," says Crowe. "It takes a long time to make a mark." But some argue that more turnover refreshes the Court and makes it more responsive to current majority views than to the "dead hand of the past."
A combination of factors -- lighter caseload, increased power and prestige, prior service on appellate courts -- may explain why justices are staying on longer, the authors say.