Looking back at every Supreme Court justice of the past 50 years
Although its mandate was established in the United States Constitution, the first assembly of the Supreme Court of the United States of America didn't take place until 1790. More than two-and-a-quarter centuries later, neither of the other two branches of government bears as close a resemblance to its original form than America's highest court. Throughout the generations, the face of the court has changed dramatically in terms of the number of justices on the court and more obviously, their gender and racial makeup. But the core responsibility of the High Court remains the same: interpret the constitutionality of laws and serve as the final venue of appeal for corporations, governments, and even individual people.
For the entirety of the court's existence, there have been only 101 associate justices and just 17 chief justices—appointing a justice is one of a president's most lasting and impactful decisions. Although it's a lifetime appointment, the average justice serves for 16 years. From civil rights and corporate law to religious freedom and gender equality, the last half-century has been among the most consequential in the court's history. Here's a look at every justice appointed and confirmed to serve on the Supreme Court over the last 50 years.
#1. Earl Warren (1953–1969)
The son of a railroad mechanic, Los Angeles native Earl Warren rose to become one of the most consequential chief justices in the history of the Supreme Court. Warren was the driving force behind Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark 1954 decision that banned racial segregation in public schools and paved the way for the modern Civil Rights movement. Serving from 1953–1969, Chief Justice Warren presided over one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. He previously served as district attorney and governor of California.
#2. John Marshall Harlan II (1955–1971)
Just as Chief Justice Earl Warren was a liberal icon, John Marshall Harlan II was a darling among conservatives. Worried about progressive overreach following the Brown v. Board decision the year before, Congress took the then-unprecedented step of subjecting Harlan to questions about his judicial philosophy during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing prior to his confirmation, a process that is now standard practice. Harlan, who enforced Prohibition as an assistant U.S. attorney, wrote dissenting opinions on landmark cases that limited police powers—including the famous Miranda v. Arizona case that guaranteed the right to have an attorney present during questioning—while joining the majority in groundbreaking civil rights cases.
#3. William J. Brennan (1956–1990)
Few Supreme Court justices served longer or exerted more influence than William J. Brennan, the son of Irish immigrants who rose to the rank of colonel during service in World War II. Elevated to the High Court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a recess appointment, he was confirmed despite several objections to his Catholic faith—and one lone no-vote by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. A skilled back-room collaborator who was known for his ability to persuade fellow justices, Brennan wrote more than 1,200 opinions during his tenure—including Baker v. Carr, which established the "one person, one vote" standard.
#4. Charles Evans Whittaker (1957–1962)
Justice Charles E. Whittaker's rise to the Supreme Court was as unconventional as his tenure. A high school dropout, Whittaker leveraged both his talents and his political connections to rise first to a seat on a U.S. District Court, then to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and then finally to the United States Supreme Court. One of the shortest-serving justices—and one whose impact is among the least remembered— Whittaker retired after just five years due to what was likely a nervous breakdown. In a final act of integrity, Whittaker refused his federal pension in retirement, as his conscience forbid him from accepting government benefits while he was still able to work.
#5. Potter Stewart (1958–1981)
Justice Potter Stewart's position as a lonely centrist on a sharply divided court gave him enormous clout as a swing vote during his two-plus decades on the bench. A World War II veteran, Stewart used his legal skills to act as the defense in several summary court-martial trials. He served on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals before becoming President Eisenhower's third recess appointment to the Supreme Court. He was instrumental in striking down the death penalty in 1972, but also in reinstating it four years later.
#6. Arthur Goldberg (1962–1965)
Born into humble circumstances, Justice Arthur Goldberg was the son of Jewish immigrants, with lineage that traces to the Polish town that would later become the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. A ferocious opponent of the death penalty, his three-year tenure was one of the shortest in the history of the High Court, but also among the most productive. Goldberg's most critical opinion is the one that declared that the Ninth Amendment guarantees the right to privacy. In 1965, he accepted a request from President Lyndon B. Johnson to retire and take on the role of U.N. ambassador as the budding Vietnam War began to spiral out of control.
#7. Byron White (1962–1993)
Born in Colorado, Justice Byron White was a star athlete who left medical school to play professional football for the team that is now called the Pittsburgh Steelers. He later entered the law profession, clerked for the Supreme Court, worked in private practice, and later joined John F. Kennedy's campaign for president before being nominated to replace Justice Whittaker. He wrote nearly 1,000 opinions over more than three decades of service, during which he became known for his intense and sometimes harsh questioning of attorneys. Although White upheld affirmative action and voted to desegregate schools, he became more conservative with age. He voted to reduce civil rights protections and upheld a ban on consensual gay sex.
#8. Abe Fortas (1965–1969)
Born in 1910 in Memphis, Justice Abe Fortas was the first member of his family to go to college—and at age 20, he earned the distinction of being the youngest law student at Yale University. He served in several high-level government posts and later worked in private practice defending victims of McCarthyism. Once appointed to the Supreme Court, he became an ally of Chief Justice Earl Warren, siding with the majority on major civil rights cases like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When Warren resigned, President Johnson nominated Fortas for chief justice, but his bid was rejected due to Fortas' long-standing friendship with the president.
#9. Thurgood Marshall (1967–1991)
In the entire history of the Supreme Court, few names ring louder than that of Justice Thurgood Marshall: a champion of civil rights who successfully argued 30 cases before the High Court before being appointed himself. A native of then-segregated Baltimore, Marshall would become the first black Supreme Court justice in American history. While he wielded incredible influence as a justice and authored many landmark opinions, he is probably most famous for his work as an attorney—when he successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court he would later join.
#10. Warren E. Burger (1969–1986)
Born into humble circumstances in Minnesota in 1907, Chief Justice Warren Burger's talents earned him an early place among the political power brokers of the state's Republican party. President Richard Nixon appointed Burger to replace Earl Warren in hopes that Burger's law-and-order reputation would provide a conservative counterweight to what Nixon saw as the liberal excesses of the 1960s. Although the lifelong Republican's conservative bona fides did shine through in several opinions, he joined liberal majorities on several key decisions—particularly the one that enforced school busing as a remedy to segregation.2018 All rights reserved.