Cover image for Leaving the bench : Supreme Court justices at the end
Leaving the bench : Supreme Court justices at the end
Atkinson, David N. (David Neal), 1940-
Publication Information:
Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, [1999]

Physical Description:
xiii, 248 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Why do they leave or stay? -- The Antebellum court, 1789-1864 -- Civil War to century's end, 1865-1899 -- The court in prosperity and depression, 1900-1936 -- From Roosevelt to Warren, 1937-1968 -- The contemporary period, 1969-1998 -- When should justices leave?
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library KF8744 .A98 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Suffering from a bad heart, emphysema, glaucoma, and deafness, Thurgood Marshall finally retired from the Supreme Court at the age of 82 in spite of having always claimed "I was appointed to a life term, and I intend to serve it." Many observers felt he should have left much earlier.

Life appointments make Supreme Court justices among the most powerful officials in government and allow even dysfunctional judges to stay on long after they should have departed. For that reason, when a justice leaves the bench is often as controversial as when he's appointed. This first comprehensive historical treatment of their deaths, resignations, and retirements explains when and why justices do step down. It considers the diverse circumstances under which they leave office and clarifies why they often are reluctant to, showing how factors like pensions, party loyalty, or personal pride come into play. It also relates physical ailments to mental faculties, offering examples of how a justice's disability sometimes affects Court decisions.

David Atkinson examines each of the nearly 100 men who have left the bench and provides anecdotal glimpses into the lives of famous and obscure justices alike. He reveals how men like Salmon Chase and William O. Douglas determinedly continued to serve after suffering strokes, how Joseph McKenna persevered despite knowing he was professionally unqualified, and how, long before Thurgood Marshall, the ailing octogenarian Gabriel Duvall finally retired after struggling to protect another ideological position on the Court.

Ultimately, Atkinson shows just how human these people are and enhances our understanding of how the Court conducts its business. He also suggests specific ways to improve the present situation, weighing the pros and cons of mandatory retirement and calling for reform in the delegation of duties to law clerks--who in recent years have dominated the actual writing of many justices' decisions.

As the current Court ages, how long might we expect justices to remain on the bench? Because our next president will likely make several appointments, now is the time to consider what shape the Supreme Court will take in the next century. Offering a wealth of information never before collected, Leaving the Bench provides substantial grist for that debate and will serve as an unimpeachable reference on the Court.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Here is a well-written, sometimes depressing account of how and why each of the nearly 100 former Supreme Court justices left the bench. Law professor Atkinson (Univ. of Missouri, Kansas City) uses biographies, judicial papers, and interviews to extract interesting anecdotes about the justices. For example, Justice Bushrod Washington (1762-1869), the president's nephew, refused to free his slaves after his Aunt Martha's death. Justice William Douglas (1898-1980), impaired by a stroke, refused to quit, leaving only after a doctor told him that he might live longer if he retired. The book is organized chronologically, with short descriptions of how each justice died, ending with three suggestions for improving the Court: Atkinson proposes that justices be more forthcoming about their health, rely less on law clerks to do their work, and leave the Court while still in good health. While scholarly in its presentation and use of sources, this is an accessible and commendable work. Recommended for public and academic libraries.ÄHarry Charles, Attorney at Law, St. Louis (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

For twenty years, Atkinson (law and political science, Univ. of Missouri at Kansas City) has collected data on the deaths, resignations, or retirements of Supreme Court justices. Here he describes the departures of the roughly 100 who left before 1995. Because Supreme Court justices have lifetime tenure (subject only to impeachment), they cannot be forced to retire, and some have stayed past the point when age or infirmity had destroyed their abilities. They overstayed for political reasons, out of "indispensability syndrome," or because they needed the income. Capable colleagues could do little beyond trying to persuade them to resign, and Atkinson retells the stories of justices working away at Justice Grier and others. Congress eliminated financial concerns in 1937 by creating a generous retirement setup. But some still overstay. Black and Harlan soldiered on although nearly blind; Douglas stayed although paralyzed and incontinent. Thurgood Marshall hoped to die in harness but eventually surrendered to emphysema and heart disease. Because nonfinancial motives for overstaying remain strong, the biographies support the case for a constitutional amendment that would provide a way to remove an overstayer without the stigma of impeachment. Atkinson discusses several plans. General readers; undergraduate collections. P. Lermack; Bradley University

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