By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON Ė On January 20, 1801, President John Adams nominated his secretary of State, fellow Federalist John Marshall, to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only had Adams already been defeated for the presidency by Thomas Jefferson, his party would also soon fade away as well. But Marshall would remain head of the Court until 1835, proving that presidents come and go, but Supreme Court justices are there for life. Life, however, is fragile and uncertain, which is why some presidential elections are more significant than others when Supreme Court nominations are an issue. The election of 2016 will be one of those.
By the time the next presidentís term of office expires in January 2021, the current Courtís members will have reached the following ages:
Chief Justice John Roberts: a few days short of 66
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 87
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia: 84
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy: 84
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer: 82
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas: 72
Associate Justice Samuel Alito: 70
Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor: 66
Associate Justice Elena Kagan: 60
From a strictly actuarial point of view, either President Obama and/or the next president will be making as many as four nominations, and the number could be higher depending upon the health of the justices.
Those are the statistics. Here is the drama. This is a 5-4 Court, with five conservative members generally voting as block against the four progressive members, but too many 5-4 decisions undermine the Courtís credibility and authority. For example, a similar 5-4 Court inexplicably halted the Florida vote count in 2000, and effectively elected George W. Bush president.source