A competing risks model of supreme court vacancies, 1789-1992

Christopher J.W. Zorn, Steven R. Van Winkle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


We hypothesize that Supreme Court justices will consider the likely ideological disposition of their successor in their decision to retire or remain on the Court. Furthermore, because a justice's decision to remain on the Court places him or her "at risk" of dying in office, it is necessary to consider a model of both voluntary and involuntary vacancies. Our study examines three broad classes of factors influential to Supreme Court vacancies: personal considerations, institutional context, and political influences. We assess the factors that affect the probability of a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court due to mortality and retirement at the individual level from 1789 to 1992, using a competing risk duration model and incorporating time-varying covariates. We find significant differences in the hazards of vacancy due to these two causes, and a number of factors are shown to influence the probability of a vacancy, including a general propensity to retire near the beginning of presidents' second terms. However, we find little evidence of the influence of political factors in either retirement-or death-related vacancies, suggesting that justices who retire do not generally do so for expressly political reasons and those who die in office rarely do so as a result of "holding out" for a like-minded replacement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-166
Number of pages22
JournalPolitical Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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