Just how long should a Supreme Court justice stay around?

David Lauter, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON — In late June, around the time the U.S. Supreme Court wraps up its current term, Justice Sonia Sotomayor will turn 70.

Is that old enough to retire?

For most Americans, that’s a simple question: More than 80% of Americans age 70 or older have left the labor force. Among those still working, a large share say they would retire if they could afford it.

Nothing is so simple for Supreme Court justices, whose lifetime tenure turns the decision about when to step down into a complex stew of personal ambition, court dynamics and, of course, politics.

That last factor is the one that has caused some people, including Democratic senators, to gently suggest that Sotomayor, the oldest of the court’s three Democratic nominees, might think about calling it quits now, while President Joe Biden can still name her replacement.

She’s given no indication that, after 15 years on the bench, she’s considering that now. But as the court term winds toward its conclusion — the traditional time for justices to make retirement announcements — and with Biden still trailing former President Donald Trump in most polls, the chatter about retirement almost surely will increase.


Democrats remember Ginsburg

A memory haunts Democrats on this issue: The decision by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg not to retire in 2013, when President Barack Obama invited her to lunch at the White House and gently tried to remind her that Democrats likely would lose control of the Senate in the 2014 midterm election.

Ginsburg thought she was the best person for the court. “Tell me who the president could have nominated this spring that you would rather see on the court than me?” she said to the Supreme Court reporter from Reuters in a July 2014 interview.

She also said she thought a Democrat would win the presidency in 2016 and be in position to appoint her replacement.


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