Here's How Long Each Supreme Court Justice Has Served (& The Big Cases They've Seen)

by Kavitha George
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Leading up to the Senate's confirmation vote on Brett Kavanaugh, Democrats and others are concerned with what the future holds. With lifetime appointments, the members of our nation's highest court have the power to make lasting impacts for at least a generation. With that in mind, it's worth looking into how long each Supreme Court justice has served, and the impact they've had during their time on the bench.

While typically a nine-justice court, the Supreme Court has been occupied by just eight, since Justice Anthony Kennedy retired in July. The eight justices began their 2018-2019 term on Oct. 1, and even without a ninth voice, the justices' schedule has been packed so far. In just their first week of the term, Vox reports, the Court will hear six cases. Operating as a group of eight isn't unheard of — this also happened after Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, when Republicans refused to hold hearings on President Obama's nominee, waiting instead until 2017 to confirm Neil Gorsuch.

The justices currently on the Court run the ideological gamut. But together, they are responsible for landmark decisions that, among other things, have protected abortion rights, upheld affirmative action, and legalized gay marriage. Here's an outline of their individual legacies.

Chief Justice John Roberts — 13 Years

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Roberts has been on the Court since 2005, an appointee of President George W. Bush. Like Kavanaugh, he previously served on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals before his appointment. He's generally considered to be a conservative justice, but with a reputation for trying to keep the Supreme Court out of partisan politics. As Chief Justice, Roberts chooses who writes opinions on SCOTUS cases, and has written a number of particularly important ones himself.

In particular, he sided with the majority in Gonzalez v. Carhart, which allowed Congress to ban specific kinds of abortions. The justice also delivered the majority opinion in King v. Burwell, which upheld the Affordable Care Act as constitutional, and wrote a dissenting opinion for the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized the constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Clarence Thomas — 27 Years

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Thomas has been referenced throughout the Kavanaugh hearings, since his confirmation process was similar in some ways. After he was nominated by George H. W. Bush in 1991, Anita Hill, a former employee under Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), accused him of sexual harassment. Thomas denied the allegations, and despite a fraught — and many argue, flawed — investigation and hearing, he was confirmed by a 52-48 vote.

Thomas is a conservative justice known for his strong disagreement with affirmative action and originalist interpretation of the Constitution, according to Oyez. He voted in the majority on District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled that a ban on registering handguns in Washington D.C. violated the Second Amendment. He also sided with the majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a landmark case which ruled that corporate funding of political action committees in candidate elections cannot be limited.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg — 25 Years

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The notorious RBG herself was nominated to the Court by Bill Clinton in 1993. An ardent feminist and liberal justice, Ginsburg spent her pre-SCOTUS career advocating for women's rights as lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In recent years, she has become an icon for her dissents on a number of notable cases, including Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in which the court ruled 5-4 against a woman's equal pay case because her claim was past the 180-day limitations period stipulated in Title VII. Her actions ultimately led to President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009. Ginsburg is also famous for her dissent in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, which a 5-4 case which allowed some companies to deny their employees contraception as a part of health coverage.

Stephen Breyer — 24 Years

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Breyer is also a Clinton-appointee, and like Ginsburg, among the more liberal SCOTUS justices. In general his interpretation of the law is not as strict as some of the more conservative justices. He tends to take into account the circumstances of each case individually, according to Oyez.

Breyer wrote the majority opinion in Stenburg v. Carhart, which ruled that a Nebraska law banning partial birth abortions was unconstitutional. He also dissented in Glossip v. Gross, a 5-4 case in which Oklahoma's practice of using lethal injections on people sentenced to death was upheld as constitutional.

Samuel Alito — 12 Years

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Alito was nominated by George W. Bush in 2005 to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. He is considered a conservative justice, but during his time on the U.S. Court of Appeals, earned a reputation for evaluating cases individually, not necessarily adhering to a strict interpretation of the law.

Alito generally sides with the more conservative justices — Thomas, Roberts, and Gorsuch — but has been known to deviate at times. One was Snyder v. Phelps, an 8-1 case which ruled that Westboro Baptist Church protesters had a constitutional right to free speech, even while protesting at the funeral of a deceased soldier. Alito argued that, "Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case."

Sonia Sotomayor — 9 Years

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Sotomayor is the first woman of color to serve on the Supreme Court. Appointed by President Obama in 2009, she initially earned her reputation as a tough and fearless prosecutor working on high-profile cases, including a major child pornography lawsuit.

Sotomayor is a liberal justice who can generally be counted on to vote with Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. She, like RBG, dissented on the Citizens United case and ruled in the majority in Obergefell. She is also a supporter of affirmative action; she wrote a 58-page dissent to Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action arguing that prohibiting race-based affirmative action in universities was unconstitutional.

Elena Kagan — 8 Years

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Currently 58, Kagan was the youngest justice on the court when she was appointed by Obama, and the only sitting justice to be confirmed without prior judicial experience. She typically joins Ginsburg and Sotomayor in their pragmatic and liberal interpretations of the law.

Her diverse perspective can be seen in Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, a patent decision for which she wrote an opinion with multiple comic book references, and even a Spiderman comic citation. Kagan also voted in the majority in King v. Burwell (the case that upheld Obamacare), and Obergefell.

Neil Gorsuch — 1 year

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Gorsuch's nomination was controversial from the beginning, with many Democrats arguing that his seat — left empty when Scalia died — should have gone to Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. Nevertheless, after President Trump nominated Gorsuch, he was confirmed 54-45, with three Democrats voting in his favor.

Gorsuch is a constitutional originalist, like Scalia, meaning he interprets the law fairly strictly, according to Oyez. In his short tenure, Gorsuch has already had a significant impact on SCOTUS cases, particularly when he joined the 5-4 majority in Trump v. Hawaii, the case that upheld the Trump administration's travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries.

The Supreme Court is ideally a neutral, apolitical body to test our nations laws, but in recent years it's become apparent that there are clear partisan drivers at play. Right now, the ideological spectrum of the Supreme Court is evenly split — Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan on the liberal end, and Roberts, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch on the conservative one. However, with Kavanaugh's confirmation vote approaching as soon as Saturday, it's possible that by next week, that balance will have shifted conservative for the forseeable future.