Assessing Potential Supreme Court Vacancies
Supreme Court appointments have been a relatively muted issue during the campaign. It might be worth taking a look at the Court and in order to see where we might be headed over the course of the next presidential term. I will be listing Justices in order from least to most likely to retire over the next four years. Letter in parentheses indicates party of the president under which they were appointed.
John Roberts (R), Samuel Alito (R), Sonia Sotomayor (D), Elana Kagan (D): All recent appointments, and all relatively young. None of these guys are going anywhere anytime soon barring a catastrophic health crisis.
Clarence Thomas (R): Even though he recently started his third decade on the Court, Thomas is still fairly young, as he won’t turn 70 until 2018. He is the Justice most committed to completely overturning decades of bad precedents, and I have a hunch he’d like to be on the Court to help shape those future rulings. There is a tiny sliver of a chance he could retire if a Republican wins the presidency, but it would be a fairly big surprise.
Antonin Scalia (R), Stephen Breyer (D): Scalia and Breyer are fairly close in age. Scalia turns 80 at the end of the next presidential term, and Breyer is two years his junior. Scalia would also be completing his 30th year on the Court in 2016. Both are still vigorous and active. Neither will retire if a member of the opposite party wins the forthcoming election, and I would put the odds of retirement at just under 50/50 if someone from their party wins. I would imagine Scalia would share some of Thomas’s desire to be able to shape opinions, so he might hang on through the next term.
Anthony Kennedy (R): The Court’s swing vote, he is just a few months younger than Scalia and has served just one less year on the Court. His retirement would be the game changer, and whoever gets to pick his replacement could be altering the course of the Court for the next thirty years. It doesn’t matter which party controls the White House, the confirmation fight over his replacement will be a bloodbath, and I would fully expect a filibuster effort.
Will he retire, and will he peg his retirement to whoever is in the White House? He’s a moderate, but he was appointed by a Republican. Ultimately Kennedy will probably decide upon his retirement in the same manner as he decides most of his votes: by flipping a coin.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (D): The only one of the eight clear ideoloigical justices who could retire during an administration of the opposite party. She is the oldest member of the Court, and she has had some health problems in recent years. I personally have seen her up close a couple of times, and she looked incredibly frail – and this was several years ago. But she is still fairly vigorous, even travelling to Egpyt in order to tell the Egyptians how rotten our Constitution is. She has evidently indicated a willingness to retire at 82, the same age as Louis Brandeis. That would occur in 2015.
If Barack Obama wins re-election, I would put the odds at just about 100 percent that she will retire over the next four years. Even if a Republican wins the White House, health issues might force her hand. If that happens, the confirmation battle will be just as intense, if not more so, than for whoever would replace Kennedy.
Ultimately the question we have to ask is which of the candidates is likely to go to the mats when it comes to a Supreme Court nomination battle?