Supreme Court Appointment Process

The United States Supreme Court plays a vital role in ensuring U.S. citizens are afforded equal justice under the law. The nine justices that sit on the court are tasked with interpreting and safeguarding the Constitution. But who decides who is appointed a member of the Court? What does the appointment process look like and how long does it take? In this article, we will address all of these questions with the goal of providing you, the student, a better idea of how the rigorous appointment process works.   

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Table of contents

    Supreme Court Appointment Process US Supreme Court Building StudySmarterThe United States Supreme Court building, Washington D.C. (Pixabay license: Free for commercial use, no attribution required).

    What is the Supreme Court?

    The United States Supreme Court (often referred to by its acronym SCOTUS) is the head of the judicial branch of government. It is the nation's highest court and has complete jurisdiction over all federal and state court cases relating to federal law. The court comprises nine Supreme Court Justices, including one Chief Justice and eight associates. Supreme Court Justices are nominated by the President of the United States and sworn in after being approved by the United States Senate.

    SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States)

    About the Supreme Court Appointment Process

    The following section discusses several aspects of the Supreme Court appointment process, taking into account the United States Constitution, the nomination process, and the role the U.S. House of Representatives plays in the appointment process.

    What the Constitution says about the Supreme Court

    The U.S. Constitution does not say much about the Supreme Court. Aside from a few lines in Article III, Sections 1 and 2 (see excerpt below), specific details about the court are in short supply. The Constitution says nothing about a nine-justice court, nor does it specify the size of the court. In fact, over time, the Supreme Court has had as many as ten justices and as few as six. And while Supreme Court Justices serve lifetime appointments on the bench today, there is nothing written in the Constitution that explicitly states justices are to serve a lifetime on the bench.

    The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

    - The United States Constitution, Article III, Section 1

    Qualifications for Supreme Court Justices

    While the Constitution provides insight on the appointment of Supreme Court Justices, it does not explain how a candidate is selected. In the past, the Justice Department has recommended Supreme Court judges. Other times, prospective judges maintained personal relationships with the president or shared the president's political beliefs.

    Lobbyists may also influence the president to nominate a particular candidate representing their interests. Despite this, the Supreme Court is designed to be, to a certain extent, independent and resistant to political pressure. The life tenure granted to Supreme Court Justices is designed so that justices are not swayed by the interests of the president that nominated them.

    Nomination

    Supreme Court Justices are nominated by the standing president and confirmed by the Senate. The president initiates the nomination process by selecting a candidate. To find a viable candidate, the president may seek advice or recommendations from the Senate Judiciary Committee or request feedback from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Justice (DoJ), Congress, current federal judges, or the American Bar Association.

    The vetting process for selecting a candidate includes examining their political views, political party membership, and alliances, and weighing whether or not the Senate is likely to confirm the candidate. In theory, this process produces politically moderate nominees and those that subscribe to a broader set of political interests as opposed to candidates who are positioned on the political fringes.

    Many candidates serve as judges on lower courts, As such, their legal experience is also taken into consideration. With an increasing emphasis on diversity over the last several years, the race and gender of a prospective justice are frequently taken into account. Lastly, candidates will often be asked for their views on a wide range of "hot button” social issues, such as abortion, gun control, and marriage equality.

    Senate Judiciary Committee

    A committee composed of 22 United States Senators who are tasked with overseeing the Department of Justice and considering judicial nominations among other duties.

    American Bar Association

    An association of legal professionals, including practicing attorneys, judges, legal scholars, etc., that leverages significant political influence over legal institutions, and plays a powerful role in proposing laws on the state and federal levels.

    Supreme Court Appointment Process Supreme Courst Justice Amy Coney Barrett StudySmarterSupreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett (United States Supreme Court, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

    The Supreme Court Appointment Process and the House of Representatives

    Once a prospective Supreme Court Justice is nominated, the Senate Judiciary Committee completes an in-depth background check and assessment of the candidate. Committee members then decide whether or not to support the nominee.

    The Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary of the American Bar Association also conducts an assessment of the nominee. The candidate will then meet with senators to amass favor for their confirmation as Supreme Court Justice.

    Citizens gain a better idea of a nominee's values when they testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They are expected to answer a range of probing questions directed at them by senators from both major parties during the testimony. This process is usually broadcast on cable news networks and can last several days.

    Supreme Court Appointment Process Timeline

    After fielding questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the group votes on whether or not to appoint the candidate. The nomination is then sent to the Senate where the chamber decides to confirm or deny the candidate. If the candidate receives support from the Senate, a confirmation vote takes place.

    Alternatively, the president can create a recess appointment, which means the candidate wouldn’t require a confirmation vote from the Senate. However, the appointed justice would not receive lifetime tenure, ending their service by the following congressional session.

    If a Justice receives senate confirmation, the appointee takes an oath of office and a judicial oath, as outlined in the Judiciary Act of 1789. This act designed the first Supreme Court to have six judges and created a federal system of lower courts.

    Supreme Court Appointment Process Steps

    The Supreme Court confirmation process consists of several steps.

    First, the current president selects a Supreme Court Justice nominee. The nominee is examined closely by the White House, FBI, and other parties to ensure that s/he can be successfully appointed.

    Second, the nominee also answers the Senate Judiciary Committee questions about their skills and employment history.

    Third, the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on whether or not to recommend the nominee to meet with the entire Senate.

    Fourth, the full Senate discusses the nominee and votes on whether or not the nominee should be confirmed.

    Finally, if a nominee receives 51 or more or more votes, they will go on to be confirmed as Supreme Court Justice. If a nominee receives 50 votes or fewer, they will not become a Supreme Court Justice. In the case of a tie, the vice president casts the final vote.

    Duration of the Supreme Court Appointment Process

    The duration of the Supreme Court appointment process varies. However, once there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, it takes an average of 17 days for a sitting U.S. president to nominate a prospective Justice. The confirmation process is more involved and takes an average of 68 days.

    Current Supreme Court Justices (2022)

    The U.S. Supreme Court is currently comprised of nine justices. The ideological balance of the current court leans heavily conservative.

    MemberTitleYear AppointedAppointed by
    John G. Roberts JR.Chief Justice2005George W. Bush
    Clarence ThomasAssociate Justice1991Georgia H. W. Bush
    Samuel A. Alito Jr.Associate Justice2006George W. Bush
    Sonia SotomayerAssociate Justice2009Barack Obama
    Elena KaganAssociate Justice2010Barack Obama
    Neil M. GorsuchAssociate Justice2017Donald J, Trump
    Brett M. Kavanaugh Associate Justice2018Donald J. Trump
    Amy Coney BarrettAssociate Justice2020Donald J. Trump
    Ketanji Brown JacksonAssociate Justice2022Joseph R. Biden Jr.

    The newest SCOTUS Justice is Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was nominated by President Joe Biden Jr. and confirmed by the United States Senate on April 7, 2022. She is the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Supreme Court Appointment Process - Key Takeaways

      • The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. It is outlined in the Constitution as a component of the judicial branch.
      • When any of the nine Supreme Court Justices vacates a position, the President nominates a Justice to the Supreme Court.
      • The nominee reaches out to the Senate to increase support for their candidacy while answering questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
      • The Senate Judiciary decides whether or not the nominee will be reviewed by the entire Senate.
      • The Senate votes to confirm or deny the Justice.
      • 51 votes are needed for the candidate to be confirmed.
      • The Senate Judiciary Committee is composed of 22 United States Senators who are tasked with overseeing the Department of Justice and considering judicial nominations.
      • The current Supreme Court leans heavily conservative
      • Ketanji Brown Jackson is the first black woman to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice
    Frequently Asked Questions about Supreme Court Appointment Process

    What is the Supreme Court appointment process?

    The Supreme Court appointment process is a rigorous evaluation of a prospective Supreme Court Justice.

    How long does it take to appoint a new Supreme Court justice?

    Nomination takes an average of 17 days. The confirmation process takes an average of 68 days. 

    Who approves the appointments to the Supreme Court?

    The Senate approves appointments to the Supreme Court.

    How the Supreme Court judges are appointed?

    They are nominated by the President. The nominee meets with Senators and is evaluated by the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the Senate Judiciary Committee recommends the nominee, s/he goes before the whole Senate for consideration and voting. If 51 Senate members vote for the nominee, they can be appointed.

    What are the eligibility criteria for the appointment of Supreme Court judges?

    Other than maintaining “good behavior”, there is no official eligibility criteria for the appointment of Supreme Court Judges.  

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