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Supreme Court justices are often chosen not solely based on their professional skills and reputation, but also based on their political orientation in order to advance certain ideology. One example is Kavanaugh.

The length of the period for which such judges will make rulings based on that ideology (if they don't change their own ideology themselves) is limited by their lifetime and health. Therefore, if politicians want to advance their ideology for as long as possible, they might want to appoint a very young and healthy person as a judge (say, a 22 y.o. person who has just finished bachelor in law program). Yet, the youngest US Supreme Court at the moment of appointment justice was 32 and only 4 of justices were less than 40. So, why no younger ideologically motivated appointments?

Note 1: the question is mostly US specific, but any references to other democratic countries with lifetime supreme justices are welcome.

Note 2: please keep in mind that the question is not why all justices are such. Having a Supreme Court consisting of 9 inexperienced undergrads doesn't sound good, but having a Supreme Court consisting of 8 experienced professionals and 1 young person having similar ideology to yours sounds like a good bargain if you believe that skewing Supreme Court towards your ideology is a right thing.

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    The nominee usually needs some kind of history to judge how committed they are to whatever cause the nominators favor. Many picks have grown in their views away from the goals their nominators put them in place for. The younger the person, the less predictable that journey will be, generally speaking. Jun 27 at 19:52
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    Normally, "ideologically motivated" candidates are the last people you want serving as judges. Judges should be making decisions impartially based solely on the facts of the case and without any regard to their personal opinions. Politicians "advancing their ideology" through judicial appointments should be seen as a gross abuse of the system, not as a feature of it.
    – bta
    Jun 27 at 20:10
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    @bta apart from blunt abuse, this might be simply a bad equlibrium: you will appoint biased judges whenever you can because the opposing party will also appoint biased judges whenever it can.
    – kandi
    Jun 27 at 20:45
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    @kandi If at any point you're trying to match the corruption of the other side, your entire system is in a very sad shape.
    – bta
    Jun 27 at 23:01
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    "Note 1: the question is mostly US specific, but any references to other democratic countries with lifetime supreme justices are welcome." - There are no such countries: whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/…
    – glaux
    Jun 28 at 8:22

7 Answers 7

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Many Judges who have been appointed have turned out not to rule with "the side" that appointed them so those putting them forward need to have a body of work that can be evaluated before they would consider nominating them. EDIT You reference this yourself with the statmement if they don't change their own ideology themselves, younger people are much more likely to change ideology as they grow up, start a family, incur debt, pay taxes etc etc..

In addition political parties have very weak control over individual Senators so there is no guarantee a clearly unqualified candidate would actually win the vote, each Senator will be mindful of the need to justify their choice to their electorate.

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    Second part is a good argument! As for the first part, well, chances are still on the side of the appointers.
    – kandi
    Jun 26 at 19:25
  • The end of the first paragraph makes little sense to me. Even the youngest SCOTUS candidates are pretty advanced in their career as well as years. I doubt debt is significant influence for them, and surely by the time you get appointed for SCOTUS you've already started a family and learned about taxes...
    – Jessica
    Jun 27 at 6:35
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    The whole context of this question is talking about appointing someone much earlier in their career - the OP talks about appointing a 22 year old!
    – deep64blue
    Jun 27 at 8:49
  • @Jessica: Debt might not be directly their debt, but family debts incurred due to a situation that comes about as a result of decisions they made. For a non-supreme court example, consider the mandatory minimums push - one of the pushers of the law eventually went to prison for fraud and learned that his cellmates all thought they wouldn't ever get caught - so the mandatory minimum wasn't the deterrent he thought it was when he wrote the laws. Jun 27 at 21:38
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    @AlexanderThe1st reference?
    – user253751
    Jun 28 at 9:34
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Because politicians want to somewhat plausibly claim the nominations have something to do with career credentials and not merely ideological commitment and likely longevity of the candidate.

Besides, prior track record as judge is also used to gauge the candidates' ideology during the nomination process. E.g. (that's phrased as "anti-labour record" criticism, but from the other side of the political spectrum, it almost certainly counts as praise.) If you ever hired someone, you'd know it's easier to judge them on what they did than just on what they say they would do.

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  • I wanted to come back and add a ref/quote for the 1st para, but Italian Philosopher's answer has one in that regard.
    – Fizz
    Jun 28 at 13:10
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There is an onerous confirmation process to get nominated candidates approved as judges on SCOTUS. People who have not demonstrated sufficient judicial knowledge and aptitude are supposed to be turned away or discouraged off.

This for example happened to Harriet Miers, one of Bush's SCOTUS nominees, who withdrew.

Now, some considered Barrett a bit lightweight in that domain. But she wasn't as extreme a case as posited in this question.

The City Bar finds Judge Barrett to be “an extremely talented lawyer and judicial writer” who “unquestionably” meets the first three of the City Bar’s evaluation criteria: (1) exceptional legal ability; (2) extensive experience and knowledge of the law; and (3) outstanding intellectual and analytical talents.

Nominating a brand new judge with limited experience, solely for the transparently partisan purpose of ensuring a long tenure ought to be too much to stomach for at least some individual congress persons, thus endangering the nomination. Ought to, anyway.


Bit controversial...

Basically, how comparable is a 30 yr old lawyer nowadays in terms of experience and expected lifetime to live to a 30 yr old in the early 1800s?

As far as historical ages of nominees, most/all(?) of the linked examples were the 1800s, a time period where the average life expectancy in the US was around the mid 40s (in 1850). So their relevance to comparing to nomination ages nowadays is open to interpretation.

See the comments below for criticism:

  • "That's because of high levels of child mortality. Once somebody survived to adulthood, the life expectancy wasn't that much shorter than that of today."

  • but as someone else stated: The source says it used life expectancy at age 20, so child mortality shouldn't be a factor here. I suspect it's showing life expectancy as "expected remaining years" rather than "expected age at death" the data is a bit more open-ended than that, is it states that in some areas at least, once someone reached the age of 20, they had about 40 more years to live. e20 in table 1. That's a life expectancy of about 60 years so not that great.

    • life expectancy in the 19th century was higher in the countryside than in the (unhealthy) cities. SCOTUS judges lived in the (quite unhealthy climate) Washington.
  • Lawyers took the bar at an earlier age (3 out of first 4 I looked at that were young in the list took it at 21-22. One at 27). Additionally, lawyers apprenticed early on, so could conceivably have more practical experience than today's grads.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, most young people became lawyers by apprenticing in the office of an established lawyer, where they would engage in clerical duties such as drawing up routine contracts and wills, while studying standard treatises; this became known as reading law. The apprentice would then have to be admitted to the local court in order to practice law. Frank B. Kellogg (1856-1937) is an unusually successful example of this route. Starting as a farm boy in Minnesota who dropped out of the local one-room school at age 14, he never attended high school, college, or law school. He clerked for a lawyer who specialized in corporate law, and soon proved himself adept. He played a major role as special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in one of the most famous decisions in corporate legal history,

Basically, before the 20th century, people often assumed positions of leadership at an age that would seem precocious nowadays.


I am leaving this up because I think it merits consideration. But, at the same time, the remarks about the potentially misleading impact of childhood mortality on the overall stats bears keeping in mind.

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    "a time period where the average life expectancy in the US was around the mid 40s (in 1850)" That's because of high levels of child mortality. Once somebody survived to adulthood, the life expectancy wasn't that much shorter than that of today.
    – nick012000
    Jun 27 at 7:55
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    Life expectancy of SCOTUS justices in the 1800s was around 75 years. Then, even more than now, it was mostly the poor that died young. smartpolitics.lib.umn.edu/2009/06/02/… Jun 27 at 7:56
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    The life expectancy stat you’re quoting includes child mortality and thus misleading. The expected survival age for someone who made it to the age of 30 would be expected to live until the age of 65. Jun 27 at 8:23
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    The source says it used life expectancy at age 20, so child mortality shouldn't be a factor here. I suspect it's showing life expectancy as "expected remaining years" rather than "expected age at death", so "mid 40s" would become "mid 60s" in age, but that isn't clear form a quick skim of the text. Jun 27 at 15:34
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    Source for life expectancy vs age: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2885717/table/T3/… It can be seen plainly that aging by 5 years only decreases your subsequent life expectancy approximately 2-3 years all the way through age 80, so the effect applies far beyond childhood.
    – Drew
    Jun 28 at 8:29
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Appointing 22 year olds is not realistic, as such people would be too inexperienced (and likely too undertrained, having not even gone to law school) to fulfill the duties of a justice of SCOTUS. Political allegiance is not the be all end all - you need some competence as well. Incompetent allies are arguably as bad as enemies.

If we step back a bit and consider the more plausible case of appointing people in their 30s or 40s, one can imagine several concerns:

  • They may change their opinions over time, such that their original allegiances which motivated their appoitnment fail to become expressed as corresponding rulings
  • The appointers may change their opinions over time. Politics changes, the issues of today are different from the issues of 50 years ago. How would a president in 1972 even know what kind of justice they would want today?
  • Younger candidates may have less impressive careers, and be harder to justify as good candidates to the Senate
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The decisions of the Supreme Court (indeed, of any constitutional court) shape the juridical and, as can be seen in cases like Roe vs. Wade and Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization, social landscape for long periods of time.

There are a few requirements for judges making such important decisions:

  1. First and foremost, since their job description is to have the last word on legal disputes of the highest order, they should be proven experts in law. This alone prohibits appointing young people without extensive experience: One simply cannot tell whether a young person will do a good job. Only an extensive, impeccable track record provides proof of qualification.

  2. Because the judges on occasion decide cases with long-term impact on people's life one would like to have judges with life experience exceeding that of young people. Ideally, some judges should have real work experience, have been married and raised children, perhaps been involved in business decisions etc. A young person may lack the experience to properly judge the impact of a decision.

  3. Because the judges have the last word on important legal matters it is important that they are not personally compromised, e.g. by character flaws or corruption. It is of utmost importance not only to the cases but also to the institution that there is no appearance of bias or frivolity. Here, too, a long track record of personal integrity is the best indicator.

  4. The Supreme Court is a stabilizing institution, more so than short-term elected officials who can be washed into office by a wave of public affection and disappear again a few years later. Young people are the instigators of change, and their opinions are subject to change, be it because of new perspectives in their changing lives or because they can be convinced. Older people's opinions, by contrast, are more stable because they have survived and been modified by a lot of experiences and debates already. It's unlikely they'll suddenly come up with revolutionary new ideas. This is exactly their function: Provide continuity and stability in the law and, by association, in society. Of course, every now and then precedent is overturned and substantial change in society is reflected in Supreme Court decisions that alter the law as we knew it, but those occasions are rare, by design.

In Germany, there is a minimum age of 40 years for the constitutional court, similar to the head of state here and in the U.S.

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    Not sure why this was down voted. I will add to this answer, because the brain is still developing into late 20s. Additionally, a person in their 20s in the US is pampered and will have little life experience...disability, stress, job loss, work-life balance, old age ailments, death, children or care-giving, crime. Many young also are risk-takers, as they have nothing to lose. Note, this is not a criticism, the young are to start the businesses and create the future and take the chances.
    – paulj
    Jun 27 at 18:26
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    Of course, there's the theory of what should happen, and then what actually does happen when the people supposed to test the candidates are just rubber-stamping whatever candidate is thrown their way who they vaguely think will do what they want them to do...
    – jcaron
    Jun 27 at 23:15
  • Great answer. @jcaron - not been much rubber stamping on the Republican side, they have been very diligent about getting the right candidates (from their perspective) for a while now!
    – deep64blue
    Jun 28 at 18:42
  • @paulj What does that even mean, " brain is still developing into late 20s"? The brain continues developing well past that point; the word for the point when the brain finally stops developing is "death." There's nothing magic about hitting 30. Jun 28 at 21:34
  • @MasonWheeler See here for further insight mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/02/18/…
    – paulj
    Jun 29 at 10:52
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Because a person's ideology starts developing long before adulthood. These days, people started championing environmental stuff before they are ten. And that is because of the environment they are grown up in--closely related to the ideology of the ones who can affect them most since childhood. A person born within a conservative environment and educated to believe in the evil of the liberal will become conservative, even if he went to a liberal environment later in life, and vice versa. To put it simply, ideology is the believe of "what is right and what is wrong". And thus it is impossible to find an "ideologically fresh" individual. Everyone is biased, in some way.

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    I think you misunderstood - he doesn't want unbiased folks. He wants young biased folks to vote for what they should for 50 years, instead of mere 20. Jun 27 at 6:17
  • @ZizyArcher sorry, who is the "he" you mentioned? Kandi (the one asking the question) or any us presidents?
    – Faito Dayo
    Jun 27 at 13:36
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    I don't think it matters in what environment you were raised, as people tend to change their ideology over time. Reference the quote often misattributed to Winston Churchill, "If You Are Not a Liberal When You Are Young, You Have No Heart, and If You Are Not a Conservative When Old, You Have No Brain."
    – Glen Yates
    Jun 27 at 14:33
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The Supreme Court is the last resort in the political process of the US Constitution. There is no further recourse after that, so it is gravely important for wisdom, not passion, to accumulate there.

The only recourse after a verdict by SCOTUS is to get elected President and try to make your changes from there.

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    Jun 28 at 6:04

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