STUMP » Articles » Mortality Monday: Supreme Court Probabilities » 6 February 2017, 18:40

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Mortality Monday: Supreme Court Probabilities  


6 February 2017, 18:40

I don’t know if “Mortality Monday” is going to be a thing… but… yeah, I’m making this a thing.

What spurred this was the following article.


‘Can she eat more kale?’ Hordes of liberals want reassurance RBG’s health is good

On Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch for deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s long-empty seat. On Wednesday morning, liberals woke up, did the math and realized it was time to be concerned about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fiber intake. Also bone density. Also exposure to airborne viruses (Madame Justice, what is your flu shot status?), and salmonella, and slippery ice, and also: Has anyone heard how scientists are coming along with a Zika vaccine?’

“I’m very interested in this.” says Jeanette Bavwidinski, a community organizer in Pennsylvania. “I’m interested in what her daily regimen is. Like, what are you all feeding RBG? Is she getting enough fresh air? Is she walking? Is she staying low-stress? What is she reading? Is she reading low-stress things?”

“Can she eat more kale?” asks Kim Landsbergen, a forest ecologist in Ohio. “Eat more kale, that’s all I can say. We love you. Eat more kale.

The facts in play: Ginsburg is 83 years old, the oldest justice by more than three years. She is one of the four reliably liberal jurists on the Supreme Court, and a mascot and hero to the left. There is one swing vote on the court, Anthony M. Kennedy, and there are three staunch conservatives. Adding Gorsuch would maintain the balance that existed when Scalia was alive: conservative replacing conservative.

But what if Ginsburg retires? What if Ginsburg gets sick and needs a leave of absence? What if Trump ends up replacing Ginsburg? In a week that has seen a relentless churn of White House news, liberal residents of the nation funneled their worst fears into a tiny, elderly woman.

Hmmm, who might be able to calculate probabilities of death? (not to say morbidity, but I’m not going to deal with morbidity tables. Pfft.)


So let’s say we have 4 liberal Supreme Court Justices, plus the “squish” Kennedy, any of whom could be replaced by a more conservative pick by President Trump (or Pence or whoever should Trump leave earlier than the end of his term).

Let’s just pass by the idea any of them will willingly retire during Trump’s term, and assume that should any of these people die in 2020, any nomination will be filibustered a la Obama and Merrick Garland.

So here are the standalone probabilities, using the 2010 calendar year Social Security mortality table with no mortality improvement:

Name Age Probability of surviving 3 years
Ruth Bader Ginsberg 83 79%
Anthony Kennedy 80 78%
Stephen Breyer 78 82%
Sonia Sotomayor 62 97%
Elena Kagan 56 98%

A few things: I just rounded to the nearest percentage point, and I’m using Age Last Birthday (which isn’t what the table is based on), because this is all approximations.

Something to note: the survival probabilities for both Kennedy & Ginsberg are similar, because male mortality is higher at all ages. The disparities do shrink as men and women get older, but you can see that the three-year difference doesn’t make much of a difference.

So here’s the deal: assuming their survivorship is independent (not a bad assumption here, albeit some pretty horrid scenarios), what’s the probability that all five survive three years? You multiply these probabilities.



There ya go, a 50/50-ish chance that one of them will die in the next three years.


Now, here’s the deal: there’s a lot of volatility in predictions, especially when so few people are involved.

But even so, the mortality table I used was a general population table. It not only includes highly educated people in low stress jobs who are still working a decade past normal retirement age, but also severely disabled people.

A better table to use would be an annuitant table. I don’t want to bother with that now, so let’s say the survival probability is almost definitely higher than 48%.

We know small bits of some of their health statuses, but not enough to underwrite a life insurance policy, say. So I will just go with my broad probability estimate. It’s going to be rough, no matter how many assumptions I make.


A little graphic from ESPN


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