Court Data

At what age are judges appointed to the Supreme Court?

The average age of appointment for Supreme Court judges in the past twenty years is a little under 60 years old.

Commentators of the United States (US) Supreme Court periodically critique its judges for being too old – one even went as far as describing the bench as ‘decidedly geriatric’. As the US Supreme Court has no retirement age, most of its judges would be too old to serve on our Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is currently their oldest judge – she is 87 years old.

 

By contrast, our Supreme Court Justices must retire when they turn 65 years old. As such, the debate here instead revolves around whether we should increase the age of retirement. For example, last year, the debate was once again in the headlines when then Chief Justice Gogoi recommended that the age of retirement for High Court judges (currently set at 62 years of age) be increased to 65 years.

 

Chief Justice Gogoi reasoned that increasing the retirement age will better equip the High Courts (HCs) to deal with the over 43 lakh cases pending before them. One of his arguments for this was that increasing the retirement age could ensure the ‘continued availability of more experienced judges for a longer tenure’.

 

CJI Gogoi observed, ‘A judge takes time to evolve and by the time he is in a position to put innovative thoughts based on rich experience to practice, he finds himself nearing retirement. This can be avoided if the age of retirement is raised to an appropriate level so that his vast experience, deeper insight and expertise can be utilized for a longer period’.

 

While CJI Gogoi was writing about the High Courts, the same reasoning could be applied to the Supreme Court. Naturally, the question that arises is, how long are judges currently serving on the Supreme Court? Since the age of retirement is fixed, another way of asking this question is, at what age are judges being appointed to the Supreme Court?

Age of appointment varies over time

We surveyed the birth dates and dates of appointment of all Supreme Court judges for the past twenty years. In particular, we looked at all judges who were appointed in or after the year 2000. To calculate the age of appointment for each judge, we counted the number of days between their date of appointment and birth date. We divided this by 365* to obtain the figure in years.

 

The average age of appointment for Supreme Court judges in the past twenty years is a little under 60 years old.

 

As the figure below shows, this average has varied over time. In 2003, it fell nearly as low as 56 years of age. Only Justice SH Kapadia was appointed that year. He was 56 years and approximately 2 months old when he was elevated to the apex court. On the other hand, in 2015, the average age of appointment increased to roughly 62 years old.

 

These variations may not seem like much at first. However, one mustn’t forget that the average judge only serves around five years on the Supreme Court before retiring. Therefore, being appointed at the age of 60 versus 61 years of age make a big difference. The former will serve 20% less than on time on the Court than the latter.

 

This data helps contextualize the debate over raising the retirement age. For example, it can precisely reveal how different retirement ages would change the length of tenures. It shows us that the proposal to increase the retirement age to 70 years is essentially a proposal to double how long judges serve on the Supreme Court (assuming the average age of appointment remains around 60 years). In this way, it can serve as a useful tool for analysing claims both for and against increasing the retirement age.

 

For now, the debate remains purely academic. There are no plans to increase the retirement age of neither Supreme Court nor Hight Court judges.

 

*we did not consider the variation in number of days in a year, so the figures we obtained are approximations.

Access the raw data here (sourced from the Supreme Court of India website)