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Donald Trump's top court nominee is young, but '50 year' term is a serious long shot

Judge Neil Gorsuch, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
David Zalubowski | AP
Judge Neil Gorsuch, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee will be the youngest member of the aging court if he's approved, but the president seriously overestimates how long Neil Gorsuch — or any other Supreme Court justice in history, for that matter — is likely to serve.

On Tuesday evening, Trump announced Gorsuch as his pick for the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. Gorsuch, 49, is a circuit judge for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (he was also one of the youngest appeals court judges in the country).

There are no age requirements to join the nation's highest court, but the majority of nominees since 1900 have been at least 50 years old, according to data in the U.S. Supreme Court Justices Database. Only 12 over that period have been younger than that, including Justice Clarence Thomas, who was 43 years old when he was nominated by George H.W. Bush in 1991.

After announcing his choice on Tuesday, Trump said, "Depending on their age, a justice can be active for 50 years, and his or her decisions can last a century or more and can often be permanent."

But a 50-year term has never come close to happening in U.S. history. In reality, no justice has even served 40 years. William O. Douglas, who was appointed in 1939, holds the record for longest-serving Supreme Court justice at 36 years, seven months.

For Gorsuch to make it to 50 years on the bench, he'd have to stay on until he's almost 100.

Still, the age of Trump's nominee is significant because Supreme Court nominations are lifetime appointments, and a young conservative addition to the bench can determine the ideological balance of the court for decades. At the time of Scalia's death, the court was on average older than it's been since the late 1970s.

Recently, the average justice has been serving for about 25 years and tends to leave when he or she is a few years away from 80. As the court stands today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83, Anthony Kennedy is 80 and Stephen Breyer is 78. If Trump manages to place a few young justices on the court, his nominations could influence the outcome of court cases for the next three decades.

Who was the youngest ever?

Gorsuch's age is not an extreme outlier — the two youngest members of the Supreme Court in history were William Johnson in 1804 and Joseph Story in 1811. Both were 32 when they were nominated.

The youngest member of the court since 1900 was the same William O. Douglas who holds the record for longest-serving. Douglas was 40 years old when he was nominated. William Rehnquist, who became chief justice, was only 47 himself when he was nominated in 1971.

Merrick Garland, Obama's 2016 nominee whom Senate Republicans blocked for nearly 300 days by refusing to give him a hearing, was actually unusually old for a nominee. At 63 years old, he was the oldest nominee since President Richard Nixon nominated Lewis F. Powell Jr. in 1971.