WA-List » Bench-warmer: Supreme Court Longevity

Bench-warmer: Supreme Court Longevity

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Politics & Government

Of the 108 men and 4 women who have served on the Supreme Court, only one rose from the state of Washington.  But that one — William O. Douglas — sat on the high court’s bench longer and wrote more opinions than all the rest.

Douglas was born in Minnesota on Oct 16, 1898.  His family moved west as his father took various jobs. When his father died in Portland, Douglas’ mother settled the family in Yakima.  Young William grew up in eastern Washington, hiked in the Cascade mountains, and graduated from Whitman College in 1920.  After teaching English at Yakima High School for a couple years, he entered Columbia Law School in New York.  By 1925, he had a law degree and began a career teaching at Columbia and Yale.  But his growing political connections served him well during the 1930s and he made a name for himself among Democratic Party leaders.  Only 14 years removed from law school, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Douglas to the Supreme Court .  He was only 40 — one of the youngest justices ever.

His political and judicial leanings were progressive.  He supported FDR’s New Deal programs,  civil rights, and environmental activism.  His opinions often landed opposite others on the court who believed in judicial restraint. His court career was one of Constitutional reinterpretation more than precedent.

Politics aside, his remarkable tenure is the subject of today’s WA-List.  Douglas served on the Supreme Court from April 17, 1939, to November 12, 1975.  That’s 13,358 days — more than 2 years longer than anyone else before or since. During that 36.6 year span, he served with five chief justices and 23 associate justices.*  That made him a colleague to more than a quarter of all the members of the court in United States history!  Thirteen justices came and went entirely during his term.  He retired in 1975, due to declining health and died  January 19, 1980 at age 81 — three months shy of 41 years after taking the bench.

Today’s list shows all 14 justices who served 30 or more years on the US Supreme Court. Douglas tops the list, besting Stephen Field by 744 days. Remarkably, Douglas was succeeded on the court by John Paul Stevens, who himself made it to #3 on the list. That one seat, therefore, was occupied by only two men over a span of 71 years.  Stevens, who is still living at the time of this writing, would have surpassed Douglas on July 16, 2012, had he not retired.

The longest-serving current justice is Antonin Scalia, appointed by President Ronald Reagan. He took office September 26, 1986, and has served more than 27 years so far.  He would need to serve through April 25, 2023 to surpass Douglas.  UPDATE: Following the death of Antonin Scalia February 13, 2016, Justice Anthony Kennedy is now the longest-serving current justice. Kennedy took office February 11, 1988, and would need to serve through September 7, 2024 to surpass Douglas.


Justice Term Years Served Appointed by Home state
1. William O. Douglas 36yr 6m 1939-1975 Franklin Roosevelt Washington**
2. Stephen J. Field 34yr 6m 1863-1897 Abraham Lincoln California
3. John Paul Stevens 34yr 6m 1975-2010 Gerald Ford Illinois
4. John Marshall CJ 34yr 4m 1801-1835 John Adams Virginia
5. Hugo Black 34yr 1937-1971 Franklin Roosevelt Alabama
6. John Marshall Harlan 33yr 10m 1877-1911 Rutherford Hayes Kentucky
7. William Brennan, Jr 33yr 9m 1956-1990 Dwight Eisenhower New Jersey
8. William Rehnquist CJ 33yr 7m 1972-2005 Richard Nixon Virginia
9. Joseph Story 33yr 7m 1812-1845 James Madison Massachusetts
10. James M. Wayne 32yr 5m 1835-1867 Andrew Jackson Georgia
11. John McLean 31yr 2m 1830-1861 Andrew Jackson Ohio
12. Byron White 31yr 2m 1962-1993 John Kennedy Colorado
13. Bushrod Washington 30yr 9m 1799-1829 John Adams Virginia
14. William Johnson 30yr 2m 1804-1834 Thomas Jefferson South Carolina

CJ=Chief Justice

*Douglas served with 28 justices (including 5 chief justices). The names make a long list unto themselves: Hugo Black, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Chief Justice Warren Burger, Harold Burton, Pierce Butler, James Byrnes. Tom Campbell, Abe Fortas, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, John Harlan, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Robert Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, James McReynolds, Sherman Minton, Frank Murphy, Lewis Powell, Stanley Reed, Owen Roberts, Wiley Rutledge, Potter Stewart, Chief Justice Harlan Stone, Chief Justice Fred Vinson, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Byron White, and Charles Whittaker.

**Douglas was from Washington, as described above, but was appointed to the court officially as a Connecticut resident due to his association with Yale.

SOURCES: Dates were derived from The Supreme Court of the United States website.  Biographical information was culled from various sources and assorted personal files.


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