Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Find a Lawyer

More Options

5 Justices With the Shortest Supreme Court Tenures

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

We have a lot of respect for judges with longevity. We all know how long Justice Stevens hung around, and if Justice Ginsburg maintains her passionate stance from this summer, they'll have to someday pry the gavel from her hands.

Truly impressive is former Chief Justice John Marshall, the fourth-longest-tenured justice in U.S. history (despite the fact that he lived in the 1800s, when a cough was treated with a snort of mercury and a leach attached to one's left breast).

But what about the short-timers? Who were the justices who obtained these lifetime appointments, only to serve a few hundred days on the bench?

Courtesy of Wikipedia, here are the fast five:

5. Howell Edmunds Jackson : 887 Days (March 4, 1893 to August 8, 1895)

Justice Jackson had quite an interesting tenure. Out of all of these men, the patent law expert was the only one to serve as a circuit court judge (Sixth Circuit) before being nominated by the other party's president, Benjamin Harrison. His confirmation was unanimous.

Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis one year after taking the bench. He made a brief return to the Court for one final case, the rehearing of the Income Tax Case, where he lambasted the majority's ruling that the tax was unconstitutional, calling it "the most disastrous blow ever struck at the Constitutional power of Congress."

He died three months later.

4. Robert Trimble : 801 Days (June 16, 1826 to August 25, 1828)

Justice Trimble, in his brief tenure, agreed with Chief Justice John Marshall on nearly everything -- though in one case, where he joined the majority, Marshall issued his only dissent in a constitutional decision.

He died suddenly of "malignant bilious fever" at the young age of 51.

3. Chief John Rutledge : 563 Days (February 15, 1790 to March 5, 1791 and July 1, 1795 to December 28, 1795)

Recess appointments. Political suicide speeches. Rutledge's tale is as relevant today as it was back in the first days of the court. He was initially appointed by President George Washington as an associate justice, but left, without ever deciding a case, to take the Chief Justice spot in South Carolina.

In 1795, President Washington called again, this time asking him to replace Chief Justice John Jay, who'd left to become governor of New York. Chief Justice Rutledge took the bench as a recess appointment, proceeded to make an unpopular speech denouncing the Jay Treaty, and his career ended with rumors of mental illness and alcoholism, plus a denied confirmation by Washington's own party, the Federalists.

He did end up sitting for two court decisions, however.

2. James F. Byrnes : 452 Days (July 8, 1941 to October 3, 1942)

A long-time congressman and New Dealer, rewarded by Franklin D. Roosevelt for his loyalty with a Supreme Court seat, Byrnes got bored and left after only a few hundred days. He instead headed the Office of Economic Stabilization during World War II, became Secretary of State, and even took his turn as governor of South Carolina.

One fun fact: He was the last Justice to be admitted to the bar by "reading law."

1. Thomas Johnson : 163 Days (August 6, 1792 to January 16, 1793)

A founding father, governor of Maryland, co-planner of Washington, D.C., and for only a brief time, a Supreme Court Justice, where he authored the court's first written opinion. He resigned after only a few months, as circuit-riding took a toll on his poor health.

Despite his health, Johnson actually managed to live for another 26 years.

From illness to boredom, none of these men kept their seat for more than 1,000 days. For a bit of perspective, our current most-junior Justice Elena Kagan has already surpassed these men, with 1,143 days on the bench.

Related Resources:

Was this helpful?

Response sent, thank you

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Copied to clipboard