Prior Judicial Experience and Supreme Court Nominations:
I've seen lots of discussion recently about the merits of nominating someone to the Supreme Court who is not a career judge. Proponents generally argue that nominating someone who is not a judge already will help the Court by adding some real-life practical experience.

  I think there may be something to this; there can be pros and cons to nominating a person without prior judicial experience, and this may be a "pro" in some cases. At the same time, I'm not quite sure a significant difference exists between nominees with prior judicial experience and those without. There may be a difference, but it's helpful not to overstate it.

  Here's my thinking:

  1. Most judges considered for appointment to the Supreme Court have been judges only for a few years. Even if appointment to a federal appellate judgeship somehow ended their ability to gain "life experience," they would still have all that life experience from the time before their appointment.

  2. In recent years, many Supreme Court Justices have served for 20 or even 30 years. Even if they were not "career judges" at the time of their appointment, they became career judges after a few years at the Court.

  3. The effect of life experience can cut in lots of different ways. One example is Justice Douglas, who had some interesting life experience before he was appointed to the Court. While he was quite young when he was confirmed (40, I believe), Douglas had been head of the SEC in the middle of the New Deal. When he got to the Court, however, he found the work surprisingly boring. Douglas was more interested in life and its experiences than the intricate details of federal law, and his lack of interest led to some notably sloppy opinions over his 36 years at the Court.

  4. Sitting judges have life experience, too. Life experience often comes from life more than from a job.

  Of course, this doesn't mean that nominees who have never been judges before are worse nominees than those that have. Some of my favorite Justices had not served as judges prior to their appointment to the Supreme Court. And I think it's fair to be concerned that a nominee who was appointed to the bench at a very young age may be a little too cloistered from the rest of the world. But on the whole, trends are hard to identify. My guess is that prior judicial experience probably matters less than many people think.