Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Monday, February 5, 2018

Greatest Supreme Court Justice of All Time

With the Super Bowl just behind us (and the Olympics just before us), we are likely to hear on the news about how certain athletes are the GOAT--Greatest of All Time.  The greatest quarterback, the greatest downhill skier (note, we rarely hear about the greatest curler or the greatest long snapper).  We Americans love to rank!  Just recently, CBS News posted the 2017 ranking of presidents, from worst to best.

All this talk of GOAT got me thinking--who is the greatest Supreme Court Justice of all time? And what criteria do you use to decide?  If, for example, we were going to pick the greatest judge of all time based on name alone it would be an easy endeavor.  We have great choices, like Judge Learned Hand, Judge Henry Friendly, or Judge John Wisdom.  But, if we are going to look at other criteria, how do we decide?

There are a few existing lists out there.  Prof. Jonathan Turley has a 2009 list posted on Historynet that identifies the 9 greatest Supreme Court Justices based on their ability "to rise above conventional thinking and prejudices and epitomize what constitutes the right stuff on the Supreme Court." Prof. Bernard Schwartz's 1995 article identifies the 10 greatest justices, with 4 honorable mentions.  In his article, Prof. Schwartz recognizes and embraces the obvious subjectivity in creating such a list.  Finally, Prof. Cass Sunstein has a list of the greatest justices of all time, focusing on historical significance and legal ability, and Prof. Will Baude has critiqued that list.

Adopting the approach of Prof. Schwartz and recognizing the subjectivity inherent in any "greatest" list, I would like to have a blog vote on the greatest Supreme Court Justice of all time.  I have divided the top contenders by time period.  There are three time periods and the survey should let you pick two in each time period.  I have included some justices who have also written terrible opinions, but I saw them on some of the lists mentioned above.  Feel free to comment on any justices that you think should be included in a future vote. Next week we will try for a runoff between the top 6 and any other top contenders from the comments.


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