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S, Seniority.

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2023. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 07 June 2023


Supreme Court justices have traditionally employed seniority to resolve a variety of issues. Generally, seniority is determined by the length of time a justice has held a seat on the Supreme Court. The *chief justice alone is exempt from the considerations related to seniority.

Some of the consequences of the seniority tradition involve matters of etiquette. The senior justices may choose to occupy the four larger office suites in the Court’s building. They are also given the more spacious spots around the Court’s conference table, with the four junior justices crowded along one side. The newer justices are seated on the ends of the dais in the courtroom. The most junior justice functions as the gatekeeper, receiving and sending messages during the Court’s private conferences; he or she also speaks first when the Court publicly announces the decision in a case.

Seniority controls more important procedural matters. In conference, the justices speak in descending order of seniority. This sequence allows the long-term members to frame the issues, shape deliberations, and exhaust discussion of relevant perspectives on a case, often to the frustration of the more junior justices. And when the chief justice, normally responsible for the important task of assigning the job of drafting the opinion in a case, is not part of the majority, the senior associate justice who is part of the majority coalition assumes the task (see opinions, assignment and writing of).

In most instances, seniority provides a simple and efficient method for resolving questions of etiquette and procedure. However, there have been a number of instances in which the seniority of particular justices has been unclear. When two or more vacancies arise simultaneously, confusion may occur. Scholars disagree as to the line of succession for several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century justices.

George A. Christensen, “Supreme Court Succession, or, Who Succeeded Whom,” The Supreme Court Historical Society Quarterly 4 (Summer 1982): 2–7.

Robert J. Janosik