This is a guest post by L.J. Zigerell. In the fall 2014, he will be an assistant professor of political science at Illinois State University.
The U.S. Supreme Court provides one of the more ironic dynamics in politics: people calling for the retirement of justices with whom they agree. Pressure to retire has been directed at Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer by some who fear that the 81- and 75-year-old justices will not survive a potential Republican presidency that begins in 2017. Some want Ginsburg and Breyer to retire before the end of Barack Obama’s second term, or possibly even sooner, in case Democrats lose control of the Senate in the midterm election. But the behavior of past justices indicates that this pressure may be for naught. Justices rarely hasten their retirement.
James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal recently noted that, to the extent that retirements from the Court have appeared politically motivated, justices have delayed instead of hastened retirement. Taranto’s observation has empirical support: my research shows justices may delay retirement until there is a favorable political environment — one likely to produce a new justice similar to them — but they rarely hasten retirement to ensure such an environment, as some want Breyer and especially Ginsburg to do.
I studied the behavior of 28 Supreme Court justices who served between 1962 and 2010. In a surprising number of cases, eight in total, justices actually retired amid an unfavorable environment — that is, when the retiring justice’s ideology was arguably different than the sitting president. This describes liberal Thurgood Marshall, for example, who retired in 1991 during George H.W. Bush’s presidency.
In five cases, justices appeared to delay retirement until the political environment had become more favorable. For example, liberals David Souter and John Paul Stevens retired in 2009 and 2010, respectively, after Obama had taken office. That Stevens waited until 2010 may have reflected an additional year’s delay, out of respect for the institutional norm that multiple justices do not retire at the same time.
In only three cases did justices appear to hasten retirement by retiring in the third or fourth year of a favorable president’s term. Examples include Lewis Powell in 1987 and Earl Warren in 1968.
In other cases, the circumstances were more ambiguous. The conservative Warren Burger retired in 1986. Because no justice had retired in 1985, Burger appears not to have been delaying retirement. But neither did he hasten it, as he could have waited until 1987 or 1988.
Statistical analysis buttressed these case studies. After accounting for other factors, such as the justices’ age and reports of any serious illness, justices were not more likely to hasten retirement than retire amid an unfavorable environment.
Why don’t justices hasten retirement? One possible answer comes from prospect theory, which argues that people tend to avoid risk when considering gains and to seek risk when considering losses. Hastening retirement likely seems like a loss to justices: retire and accept the certainty that you will lose desired time on the Court, or do not retire and accept the risk that your successor will be chosen by a president from the opposite party. If this logic holds, then justices should take the risk of staying on the Court and hope that the next president is ideologically simpatico or that they can remain healthy if the next president is on the opposite side.
Moreover, hastening retirement could appear to be the wrong choice if a justice remains healthy in retirement. Ginsburg herself seemed to articulate this idea. Referring to Sandra Day O’Conn0r, who retired in 2006 and is still relatively healthy, Ginsburg said, “I wonder if Sandra regrets stepping down when she did?” In fact, for Ginsburg and Breyer, hastening retirement would be the correct choice in hindsight only if a Republican wins the 2016 presidential election and Ginsburg and Breyer prove unable to serve, perhaps because of illness or death, before a Democrat regains the presidency.
None of this guarantees that Ginsburg or Breyer won’t retire before Obama steps down. But there is good reason to temper any expectations that they will.