Justice Breyer leaving Supreme Court after 28 years. How long does a 'for life' appointment usually last?

How Supreme Court nominee's confirmation process will unfold
How Supreme Court nominee's confirmation process will unfold

With the announced retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a new justice will soon be appointed to the high court.

On paper, the appointments are for life, meant to ensure judicial independence from external factors.

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But as Breyer's retirement illustrates, "for life" doesn't necessarily mean "until death."

According to the Supreme Court's website, the average length of a justice's tenure is 16 years.

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However, the recent trend to appoint younger justices, combined with ever-lengthening life expectancies, is expected to stretch those terms. Analysis conducted by consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates that the average tenure for Supreme Court justices over the next 100 years will be around 35 years.

Here are the six most recent justices to leave the Supreme Court and how long they served.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, is at age 85 currently the oldest active justice on the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, is at age 85 currently the oldest active justice on the Supreme Court.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg served for 27 years until her death in September of 2020. President Donald Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace her stirred controversy as Ginsburg's dying wish was to have her seat filled after the 2020 election.

David H. Souter

President George H. W. Bush and David Souter in 1990.
President George H. W. Bush and David Souter in 1990.

Appointed by George H.W. Bush, Souter served for 18 years and 263 days. Souter retired in 2009, allowing President Barack Obama to nominate Sonia Sotomayor to take his place.

Anthony M. Kennedy

Kennedy was nominated by President Ronald Regan to replace Lewis F. Powell Jr. After serving for over 30 years, he retired and was replaced with one of his former law clerks, Brett Kavanaugh.

Antonin Scalia

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia speaks on civil liberties at an ACLU Membership Conference Sunday in Washington, D.C.Chris Greenberg | Associated Press
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia speaks on civil liberties at an ACLU Membership Conference Sunday in Washington, D.C.Chris Greenberg | Associated Press

The Supreme Court's first Italian-American justice, Scalia served for over 29 years before he died of natural causes. Trump replaced him with Neil Gorsuch.

William Rehnquist

Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist is sworn in on Capitol Hill in this July 29, 1986, file photo. He died Saturday evening at his home in Virginia. Lana Harris | Associated Press
Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist is sworn in on Capitol Hill in this July 29, 1986, file photo. He died Saturday evening at his home in Virginia. Lana Harris | Associated Press

After being nominated by Richard Nixon, William Rehnquist served for almost 19 years before dying at the age of 80. President Reagan replaced him with Scalia.

Sandra Day O'Connor

The first female associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, O'Connor served for 24 years before retiring in 2006. George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to replace her.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: How long do Supreme Court justices serve? Years of tenure vary