Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away Saturday in Texas. Given Scalia's passing, we are re-posting a piece first published on The Fix last month. The original post follows.
Now that it is an election year, it is time to play perhaps the most macabre game in Washington politics: When will the Supreme Court retire? And to answer that question, we really want to ask: How old are the justices on the Supreme Court?
The thing about time is that it is unrelenting. Five years ago at this point, shortly after Elena Kagan was nominated by President Obama, the average age of Supreme Court justices was just over 64. If you managed to nail down basic arithmetic, you'll deduce that the average age at this moment is just over 69.
Here's the age at the end of each year of every member of the Supreme Court since the dawn of the republic. At the far right is now, this year, with the slightly larger dots indicating the current court.
The average age at which justices retire, you may remember from this April 2014 piece we wrote, is 78.7. Right at this moment, three justices are over that mark: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.
But there's something worth keeping in mind: People live longer than they used to.
Since 1789, the average age of the court on the whole has crept upward, although not terribly quickly. It rose, then plummeted right before World War II, then rose again. The highest average age of every justice serving in a year at the end of that year was in 1936 — right before all those retirements. The second highest was in the 1980s, and the third highest is now. (Or, really, at the end of this year.)
Note that yellow line, though. Over the past century, the life expectancy of Americans has climbed. That's for all Americans, mind you; now that women sit on the court with regularity, the court could get older still, since women live longer than men.
If there were a mandatory retirement age for the court, as there is for Catholic bishops, we'd have a good sense of how many justices the next president might get to appoint. As it is, though, we don't. Maybe three. Maybe none. Maybe nine! Who knows.
And with that, let's stop obsessing about how old these poor people are. Let's leave the hard work of checking the vital signs of prominent D.C. figures to Vice President Biden, as the Constitution dictates.