Deciding to leave: The politics of departure in the United States Supreme Court from John Rutledge to Harry Blackman

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Supreme Court, Rutledge, John, Blackmun, Harry, Retirement

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | History | Law | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences | United States History


At its core, this project involves important questions concerning the allocation of political power. Should political office-holders, and judges specifically, have life tenure? Should they also have the resultant power to time their departures and thereby influence whom their successors will be? To help answer these questions, I employ an historical institutional analysis to discern the reasons behind the departures of the U.S. Supreme Courts. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that justices are partisan in their departures, I show the opposite to be true. Over time, the single most important factor in the departure decision of justices has been provision for their retirement. With the passage and expansion of retirements, the number of Justices voluntarily departing from the Court has increased I have found that justices nearing the close of their tenure are primarily concerned with institutional factors, such as not being a burden to their colleagues, and personal concerns like the enjoyment of their work and the fear of death. Given the increasing popularity of term limits and judicial elections on the state level, I discuss a number of proposals for reforming the Supreme Court's succession process. In the end, I argue that the current constitutional arrangements are generally sufficient and are in need of only minor reform. Expanding the current retirement provision to allow retired justices to serve on the Supreme Court when invited by their active colleagues will strengthen the process. Also, active justices must remain vigilant against their own failings for the Court to function effectively.


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