The Odds of a SCOTUS Opening

With the Supreme Court as closely divided as it has ever been — five conservatives and four liberals — the next few years could make a dramatic difference in the future of the court. Slate has put together a Supreme Court Justice Death Generator using CDC data to give some basic actuarial odds on which side is likely to lose a justice.

The odds of a single opening on the Supreme Court due to the death of one of the justices in the next four years is 64.95%. The odds that it will come from the conservative wing of the court: 46.05%. The odds that it will come from the liberal wing of the court: 32.9%. Are you buying that? I don’t think I am. I suspect the higher odds may simply be a function of two things: the fact that there are five of them and the presence of Clarence Thomas on the court. What do I mean by that?

Well, the average life expectancy for black men in this country is 70.8 years, well below the 76.2 years for white men. The average life expectancy for white women is 81.2 years. But those are only averages and the average for black men is undoubtedly dragged down by the relatively high number of black men who die young and the high poverty rate among blacks in general. I doubt the average life expectancy of highly affluent black men is much lower than that of highly affluent white men.

Only four justices on the court are more than 70 years old, two from the conservative side (Kennedy and Scalia, both 76) and two from the liberal side (Breyer, 74, and Ginsburg, 79. The next oldest is Thomas, who is 64. And of those four oldest justices, Ginsburg is the only one who has faced serious health problems (she beat pancreatic cancer, which is very rare, and colon cancer as well). So if you’re placing bets, the fact that she is the oldest and has faced cancer twice would suggest that she is the most likely to either die or retire due to health considerations.

14 comments on this post.
  1. gshelley:

    Looking at life expectancy doesn’t really help much in this situation, as they are already in their 70s. What would be relavent is the life expectancy of a 76 year old white male, which according to the US social security site is 10.04 years (almost exactly the same as the life expectancy of a 79 year old female)

  2. Reginald Selkirk:

    If Ginsburg wants to retire during a Democratic presidency, she should do it early enough that the GOP cannot sit on it until the end of Obama’s term, because some folks have no decency.

  3. ph041985:

    I think it would be more accurate to look at the historical ages of Supreme Court Justices at their retirement/death/time they left the bench. I think “Supreme Court Justice” is such a highly specific class of individuals that comparing them to any average population is not very reliable. They come from more affluent backgrounds, higher standard of living, wealthier, more educated, etc etc etc. The best argument, I think is to compare them to past Supreme Court Justices because regardless of time period, they’ve enjoyed a high status compared to the rest of the population.

  4. d.c.wilson:

    Does this take into account random events that have nothing to do with age, tender, or race? One of the justices getting hit by a bus, for example.

  5. slc1:

    Re d.c.wilson @ #4

    It should be recalled that, several years ago, Chief Justice Roberts had some sort of seizure while out boating alone. Had he been leaning over the side at the time, he might well have fallen in and drowned.

  6. scienceavenger:

    But those are only averages and the average for black men is undoubtedly dragged down by the [1] relatively high number of black men who die young and [2] the high poverty rate among blacks in general.

    The first point doesn’t apply here. The article clearly says they are taking the life expectancy of the justices at their current age, not from birth. That’s good, because if they did the latter, not only would they be guilty of actuarial malpractice, it would likely produce negative life expectancy for some of the older justices.

    The second point may come into play, but probably not as much as one thinks, given again that they are going from current age, and poverty will probably have less effect in the latter years than it does from birth. Most of the effects of wealth and modern medicine in general on life expectancy has been in the early years, due to the drastic reduction in infant mortality. It flattens out after age 11 or so.

  7. Yoritomo:

    The simulator’s description is pretty exhaustive: They base their numbers on the CDC’s numbers by age, gender and race – they model Thomas as an average 62-year-old Black man, which they themselves admit is probably incorrect. But Thomas’ 10% statistical chance to shuffle off the mortal coil is lower than Scalia’s and Kennedy’s chances of about 18% each – those three combined drive the “conservative” numbers. Unless the CDC offers actuarial tables that include socioeconomic or medical factors, I don’t think they could easily build a better model.

    And yes, actuarial tables would include random accidents such as “run over by a bus” – the only question is whether a Supreme Court justice’s chances of such a mishap are higher or lower than the chances of a random person of the same age, sex and race.

  8. dukeofomnium:

    You’ve seemingly bifurcated the SCOTUS, but the mortality doesn’t add up to 100%. If the seat is 46.05% likely to come from a conservative, and 32.9% from a liberal, where does the other 21.05% go?

  9. Yoritomo:

    dukeofomnium @8:
    Those are the chances of at least one conservative (or liberal) justice dying, not the chances that if exactly one justice dies he’ll turn out to have been conservative (or liberal).

  10. sosw:

    You’ve seemingly bifurcated the SCOTUS, but the mortality doesn’t add up to 100%. If the seat is 46.05% likely to come from a conservative, and 32.9% from a liberal, where does the other 21.05% go?

    It almost (but not quite) works out to the 64.95% chance of either happening, so I’m assuming those are overall chances, not chances in the case that somebody does die.

    In any case, when talking about such a relatively small group of people, I’m not sure how useful such numbers are. As Ed seems to be saying, considering their individual situations might be more useful…to the extent that trying to predict any individual’s death due to unspecified causes ever is.

  11. eric:

    Some more dependable statistics for you:
    Chances of GOP claiming some perfectly suitable jurist of Obama’s choice is unsuitable: 100%
    Chances of Democrats claiming some perfectly suitable jurist chosen by a GOP president is unsuitable: 100%

  12. aluchko:

    The CDC odds are obviously pretty inaccurate, you have a cancer survivor, non-retirees, a highly atypical profession (high engagement and late retirement age), and unusually good healthcare.

    However, if you start taking too many of those factors into account the creepy factor goes through the roof.

    It’s a ballpark estimate which mostly serves to point out that old people can die without a lot of warning, and the SCOTUS has a lot of old people.

  13. martinc:

    Ed, I’d be careful about quoting exact figures from that Death Generator … it just runs 10000 trials and adds them up … it produces slightly different figures every time you run it.

    Also when you say:

    The odds that it will come from the conservative wing of the court: 46.05%. The odds that it will come from the liberal wing of the court: 32.9%.

    … the ‘it’ referred to is the “death of one of the justices in the next four years” from the sentence above it. But that is phrased in a slightly misleading manner: the two figures you quote are the chances of a death in the conservative and liberal sides respectively, which is why there is a 14% difference between the sum of the two figures and the 64.95% you quoted for any death. That 14% is the chance that at least one from each side will die. You might be aware of the maths involved; I just felt the way you phrased it might have been a bit misleading.

    To avoid my post seeming entirely nitpicking, I will add that from an outside (Australian) point of view, it seems a little odd that the Supreme Court justices seem so partisan that observers can simply label them as righties and lefties. I doubt most Australians could even name a single judge of our High Court: they are basically nameless and faceless. A couple of years ago, they might have bee able to, as we had one gay judge who the right-wingers hated, but mostly they are pretty centrist.

  14. lpetrich:

    One can crunch the numbers for previous Supreme Court Justices and compare them to typical figures for upper-middle-class professional white males.

    So why not?

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