NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The U.S. Supreme Court Remains Unchanged for Nine Years

October 7, 2002

The Supreme Court begins a new term today composed of the same justices who have sat on the bench together for the last nine years. Judicial observers say this is a most unusual phenomenon -- and some management experts even say that represents an unhealthy situation.

  • Ninety-eight months have gone by since Justice Stephen G. Breyer took the judicial oath on Aug. 3, 1994 -- the longest time without change on the court since the interval between the arrival of Justices Joseph Story in 1812 and Smith Thompson in 1823.
  • On average, a new justice has joined the court about every two years -- which is what makes the current situation so unusual.
  • The current justices range in age from Clarence Thomas at 54 to John Paul Stevens at 82.
  • For management experts, absence of turnover at the top is a warning signal, suggesting isolation and rigidity.

They point out that for nine whole years the same nine people have debated together in secret, labored together day-after-day and even eaten lunch together in a small private dining room.

"Change is what brings in new ideas," says Prof. W. Robert Sampson of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, "and what helps people re-examine their own ideas."

The Supreme Court is not like any normal corporate organization. There is no chairman at the top to run the show, but rather nine equals. As they are appointed for life, there is no mandatory retirement age. So different dynamics are at work than those to be found in a corporate boardroom.

Some scholars argue that a static court is a more stable and predictable court. Lack of change permits coalitions to be formed and cooperate strategies to develop.

Source: Linda Greenhouse, "The Court: Same Time Next Year. And Next Year," New York Times, October 6, 2002.


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