The Shape of the Supreme Court

UPDATED 08/09/10

With the replacement of Justice John Paul Stevens by Elena Kagan, the Court’s presidential provenance looks like this*:

Reagan — Antonin Scalia (1986), Anthony Kennedy (1988)

Bush I — Clarence Thomas (1991)

Clinton — Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), Stephen Breyer (1994)

Bush II — John Roberts (2005), Samuel Alito (2006)

Obama — Sonia Sotomayor (2009), Elena Kagan (2010)

In terms of age, the Court looks like this:

Ginsburg, 77

Scalia, 74

Kennedy, 73

Breyer, 71

Thomas, 61

Alito, 60

Sotomayor, 55

Roberts, 55

Kagan, 50

Barring an unexpected death or retirement, Ginsburg will be the next to go. Like Souter and Stevens, she is likely to retire on Obama’s watch, in an effort to maintan the Court’s present ideological balance. Obama’s picks have not, and likely will not, alter the Court’s ideological balance, but they will create a core of youngish “liberal” justices, who will serve for decades.

The best that we devoted adherents of the Constitution can hope for is a one-term Obama-cy and a Republican successor who will do a better job of selecting justices than Ford (Stevens), Reagan (O’Connor and Kennedy), and G.H.W. Bush (Souter). In fact, the election of a Republican is critical because the person who sits in the White House from 2013 to 2017 or 2021 may well have to replace three justices — most likely Scalia, Kennedy, and Breyer.

Imagine the future of the Court if those three justices — an eccentric originalist, a wavering centrist, and a semi-hard leftist — could be replaced with sober, collegial originalists. They would outnumber Kagan, Sotomayor, and the next Ginsburg by 6-3, setting the stage for an era of constitutional resurgence.


* For those of you who are interested in the Court’s genealogy, the following lines of succession have led to the present Court (* = elevated from associate justice to chief justice):

Chief Justice
John Jay (1789-1795)
John Rutledge* (1795-1795)
Oliver Ellsworth (1796-1800)
John Marshall (1801-1835)
Roger Brooke Taney (1836-1864)
Salmon Portland Chase (1864-1873)
Morrison Remick Waite (1874-1888)
Melville Weston Fuller (1888-1910)
Edward Douglass White* (1910-1921)
William Howard Taft (1921-1930)
Charles Evans Hughes* (1930-1941)
Harlan Fiske Stone* (1941-1946)
Fred Moore Vinson (1946-1953)
Earl Warren (1954-1969)
Warren Earl Burger (1969-1986)
William Hubbs Rehnquist* (1986-2005)
John Glover Roberts Jr. (2005-)

James Wilson (1789-1798)
Bushrod Washington (1799-1829)
Henry Baldwin (1830-1844)
Robert Cooper Grier (1846-1870)
William Strong (1870-1880)
William Burnham Woods (1881-1887)
Lucius Quintus C. Lamar (1888-1893)
Howell Edmunds Jackson (1893-1895)
Rufus Wheeler Peckham (1895-1899)
Horace Harmon Lurton (1910-1914)
James Clark McReynolds (1914-1941)
James Francis Byrnes (1941-1942)
Wiley Blount Rutledge (1943-1949)
Sherman Minton (1949-1956)
William Joseph Brennan Jr. (1957-1990)
David Hackett Souter (1990-2009)
Sonia Maria Sotomayor (2009-)

William Cushing (1790-1810)
Joseph Story (1812-1845)
Levi Woodbury (1846-1851)
Benjamin Robbins Curtis (1851-1857)
Nathan Clifford (1858-1881)
Horace Gray (1882-1902)
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1902-1932)
Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1932-1938)
Felix Frankfurter (1939-1962)
Arthur Joseph Goldberg (1962-1965)
Abraham Fortas (1965-1969)
Harry Andrew Blackmun (1970-1994)
Stephen Gerald Breyer (1994-)

John Blair (1790-1795)
Samuel Chase (1796-1811)
Gabriel Duvall (1811-1835)
Philip Pendleton Barbour (1836-1841)
Peter Vivian Daniel (1842-1860)
Samuel Freeman Miller (1862-1890)
Henry Billings Brown (1891-1906)
William Henry Moody (1906-1910)
Willis Van Devanter (1911-1937)
Hugo Lafayette Black (1937-1971)
Lewis Franklin Powell Jr. (1972-1987)
Anthony McLeod Kennedy (1988-)

John Rutledge* (1790-1791)
Thomas Johnson (1792-1793)
William Patterson (1793-1806)
Brockholst Livingston (1807-1823)
Smith Thompson (1824-1843)
Samuel Nelson (1845-1872)
Ward Hunt (1873-1882)
Samuel Blatchford (1882-1893)
Edward Douglass White* (1894-1910)
Joseph Rucker Lamar (1911-1916)
Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1916-1939)
William Orville Douglas (1939-1975)
John Paul Stevens (1975-2010)
Elena Kagan (2010-)

James Iredell (1790-1799)
Alfred Moore (1800-1804)
William Johnson (1804-1834
James Moore Wayne (1835-1867)

Thomas Todd (1807-1826)
Robert Trimble (1826-1828)
John McLane (1830-1861)
Noah Hayes Swayne (1862-1881)
Stanely Matthews (1881-1889)
David Josiah Brewer (1890-1910)
Charles Evans Hughes* (1910-1916)
John Hessin Clarke (1916-1922)
George Sutherland (1922-1938)
Stanley Forman Reed (1938-1957)
Charles Evans Whitaker (1952-1962)
Byron Raymond White (1962-1993)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993-)

John Carlton (1837-1865)

John McKinley (1838-1852)
John Archibald Campbell (1853-1861)
David Davis (1862-1877)
John Marshall Harlan (1877-1911)
Mahlon Pitney (1912-1922)
Edward Terry Sanford (1923-1930)
Owen Josephus Robert (1930-1945)
Harold Hitz Burton (1945-1958)
Potter Stewart (1959-1981)
Sandra Day O’Connor (1981-2006)
Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. (2006-)

Stephen Johnson Field (1863-1897)
Joseph McKenna (1898-1925)
Harlan Fiske Stone* (1925-1941)
Robert Houghwout Jackson (1941-1954)
John Marshall Harlan II (1955-1971)
William Hubbs Rehnquist* (1972-1986)
Antonin Gregory Scalia (1986-)

Joseph P. Bradley (1870-1892)
George Shiras Jr. (1892-1903)
William Rufus Day (1903-1922)
Pierce Butler (1923-1939)
William Francis Murphy (1940-1949)
Thomas Campbell Clark (1949-1967)
Thurgood Marshall (1967-1991)
Clarence Thomas (1991-)

Sources: Appendix Two, “Nominations and Successions of the Justices,” The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, edited by Kermit L. Hall, Oxford University Press, 1999; “Members of the Supreme Court of the United States,” from the website of the U.S. Supreme Court.