None of the Supreme Court Justices Has Battle Experience

This is the first of a two-part series on the Supreme Court and the military. Today's article focuses on the military history of the men who later became justices. Part II will focus on the disconnect between the current Court and the American war effort.

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We live in what some scholars call an age of "endless war." Our nation's politics -- and its overburdened budget -- are dominated by military considerations. When will we leave Afghanistan? When will we bomb Iran? Why didn't we go into Libya? What are we going to do about finding jobs, and effective care, for all the troops when they finally make their way home? Meanwhile, for the past 11 years, we have tried futilely to mesh law and war at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where our military tribunals have foundered.

America was born by war, split asunder by war, raised to mighty stature by war, and then stung by it again. Ken Burns' brilliant documentary, The War, airing again these past few weeks, is a powerful reminder of that -- and of the sacrifices Americans have consistently been willing to make in the cause of The Cause, whatever it happens to be at the time. I am barely old enough to remember some of the backlash against our troops during the Vietnam War. Today, with penitence in the air, such a reaction is unthinkable.

Many of our presidents have had combat experience. John F. Kennedy was a hero. So was Andrew Jackson. In 2004, John Kerry came just a few votes short in Ohio of making the list of presidents with impressive military records. Neither President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden have any military experience, but, today, there are approximately 90 veterans serving in the House of Representatives. There are approximately 25 veterans now in the U.S. Senate. Those numbers seem high. But they are actually the lowest they have been in generations.

Our nation's judges, too, have long had ties to military service. And, from time to time, so has the United States Supreme Court. This, however, is not one of those times. For the first time since 1936, the year before former Army Captain Hugo Black ascended to the bench, there are no current justices with any active, wartime military experience. The last justice with such experience -- in naval intelligence, during the Second World War -- was John Paul Stevens. He retired from the bench in 2010.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. We don't need, or necessarily want, our judges to be former soldiers. And our justices should never be cheerleaders for an administration's war effort, or for the Pentagon, or for the vast industrial complex which accompanies it. But military law, and constitutional law involving military issues, are often before the justices. And the concept of an "endless war" on terrorism suggests an "endless" stream of military-type cases involving the rights of foreign detainees.

Just think for a moment about what a military perspective at the Court might have offered the terror-law debate over the past decade. And just think of how cloistered the current Court is today: In addition to their lack of active military service, none of the justices have ever held elective office, and only one, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, even has any experience as a federal trial court judge. The Court still needs more diversity in many ways, but none more so than diversity of background and experience. It was not always this way.


There have been 112 justices of the United States Supreme Court. By my count, 71 of them had no military experience or training. Of the 41 other justices, there have been two -- Smith Thompson (who sat on the Court from 1823-1843) and Levi Woodbury (1841-1845) -- who served as Secretaries of War. William Taft (1921-1930) was a Secretary of War (and Commander-in-Chief!) before he ascended to the bench. Harlan Stone (1941-1946) served on a War Department Board of Inquiry. Another future justice attended West Point.

Of the remaining justices, many never served in active duty during wartime or fired at an enemy. This group includes three members of the current Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, briefly served (in 1961) in the California Army National Guard. Justice Samuel Alito, a ROTC candidate during college, enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1972. Justice Stephen Breyer also was briefly in the Army, as an undergraduate in 1957, although there isn't much information about his service.

During the Revolutionary War period, eight of the first 20 justices saw duty against the British. This group includes Henry Brockholst Livingston (1807-1823), who served at the Battles of Saratoga and Ticonderoga, and John Marshall (1801-1835), the architect of the Court's current authority. Marshall was at the Battle of Brandywine and served as an officer at Valley Forge. Even George Washington's young nephew got into the action. Future justice Bushrod Washington (1798-1829) served late in our war of independence.

Two future justices -- James Wayne (1835-1867) and John Catron (1837-1865) -- served in active duty during the War of 1812. No future justices campaigned in the war against Mexico. But, by my count, at least seven future justices served in the Civil War -- four with the Union, three with the Confederacy. Another justice, Henry Brown (1891-1906), hired a substitute to take his place. Two justices, Horace Lurton (1910-1914) and Edward White (1894-1921), fought for the South and became, for a time, Northern prisoners of war.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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