Supreme Court make-up could shift to liberal lean

Obama’s re-election has implications for the court.

Bryna Godar

With three U.S. Supreme Court justices nearing 80 years old — the age at which many decide to step down — President Barack Obama’s re-election could signal a shift in the court’s dynamic.

Of 63 justices who have left the bench since 1900, only 10 stayed past age 80.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will turn 80 in March, and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy will hit the age in 2016.

This number of potential outgoing justices could offer Obama the opportunity to shift the court’s ideological makeup to a liberal lean, or at least maintain its status quo, according to University of Minnesota political science professor Tim Johnson.

“Three will get into their eighties, and that’s when I think, in terms of age and health, all bets are probably off,” said Johnson, who studies the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently made up of five justices selected by conservative presidents and four by liberals, including two women appointed by Obama in 2009 and 2010.

Depending on how retiring justices lean, this 5-4 ideological split could shift.

Johnson said with a left-leaning majority, the liberal court “would do all sorts of things,” such as overturn Citizens United or add stronger protection for women’s abortion rights.

President Ronald Reagan appointed both Kennedy and Scalia, while President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg. Kennedy has been known to side with both liberal and conservative justices.

Ginsburg has twice overcome bouts of cancer while serving on the court.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg is probably the most likely [to step down] but has said publicly she wants to hold on until 2015,” Johnson said.

Under Obama, the professor said Ginsburg’s seat would remain liberal if she were to step down. 

The retirement of swing-voter Kennedy, however, would mean a “wholesale change of the ideological makeup of the court,” Johnson said, depending on how liberal a person Congress would approve.

On the other end, Johnson said Scalia, a conservative, would likely hang on for the next four years.

“He clearly doesn’t want to have a Democrat replace him,” Johnson said, “but the balance is, when you turn 80 years old, it’s hard to tell how long you can hang on.”