The Supreme Court plays a critical role in shaping the landscape of American law. The Justices who make up the Supreme Court can serve for life, often holding their position long after the President who appointed them has left office. Because of this, selecting the right Justices to serve on the Supreme Court is of the utmost importance. So, just how are Supreme Court Justices chosen anyway?
How Are Supreme Court Justices Chosen?
Fun fact: there are no requirements to be a Supreme Court Justice.
The US Constitution does not give any specific qualifications for Justices. They can be any age, have any educational background, and can be of any profession. They don’t even have to be native-born citizens.
Take Justice James F. Byrnes (1941-1942). Byrnes never attended law school. He didn’t even graduate from high school. He self taught himself law, and passed the bar at the age of 23.
Still, even though there are no formal requirements to be a Supreme Court Justice, every Justice has had some form of law background. This has more to do with tradition; having a law background is not required to serve on the Supreme Court.
Per the Constitution, it is ultimately the President who gets to nominate people for Supreme Court positions.
When a seat on the Supreme Court opens up, the President often has a team of White House staff members who will prepare files of possible candidates. As discussed earlier, the President can pretty much nominate whoever they want. Typically, the President will pick someone with similar goals and ideologies.
The President does not, however, have the final say on who is picked. The Founding Fathers thought this would give too much power to the Executive Branch. As such, all nominated Supreme Court Justices must be confirmed by Congress.
Once the President has nominated a candidate for the Supreme Court, they must stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee. This bipartisan group will hold a hearing, where they will ask the candidate various questions. In theory, they are trying to get a better sense for whether the individual will be able to properly execute the job.
The Committee ultimately votes on what sort of recommendation to give the Senate. This will be either a favorable recommendation, an unfavorable recommendation, or a neutral recommendation.
After this process, the full Senate gets to vote on the Supreme Court nominee, where a simple majority is all that is need to confirm a Justice.
Of course, the confirmation process has become increasingly partisan, especially in more recent years. Many votes to confirm Justices are split down party lines.
There is one special case where a President can appoint a Justice to the Supreme Court solely on his own. As outlined in the Constitution, the President has the right to fill any vacancies that occur while the Senate is not in session. These appointments are only temporary, however. At some point, once the Senate reconvenes, a vote must be held. Otherwise, the Justice will lose his or her position.
Tenure and Vacancies
The constitution states that Supreme Court Justices can hold their positions for as long as they want, so long as they maintain “good behavior.” This means a Justice can resign or retire at any time. Some will serve for life.
It is possible to impeach a Supreme Court Justice, though this has only happened once. The House of Representatives passed Articles of Impeachment against Associate Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. However, he was acquitted by the Senate.
Have you ever wondered why we have nine Supreme Court Justices? Click here to read the story behind it.