How are Supreme Court Justices selected?

McClatchy News Services

The Supreme Court sat for the first time in its own building on October 7, 1935. But it has met in Washington since 1801.
The Supreme Court sat for the first time in its own building on October 7, 1935. But it has met in Washington since 1801. AP

How are Supreme Court Justices selected?

The President nominates someone for a vacancy on the Court and the Senate votes to confirm the nominee, which requires a simple majority. This is intended to give both the Executive and Legislative Branches of the federal government a voice in the composition of the Supreme Court.

Are there qualifications to be a Justice? Do you have to be a lawyer or attend law school to be a Supreme Court Justice?

The Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law. Many of the 18th and 19th century Justices studied law under a mentor because there were few law schools in the country.

The last Justice to be appointed who did not attend any law school was James F. Byrnes (1941-1942). He did not graduate from high school and taught himself law, passing the bar at the age of 23.

How is the Chief Justice selected? Does the most senior Associate Justice become Chief Justice?

Like the Associate Justices, the Chief Justice is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. There is no requirement that the Chief Justice serve as an Associate Justice, but 5 of the 17 Chief Justices have served on the Court as Associate Justices prior to becoming Chief Justice. Three were members of the Court when they were elevated to Chief Justice:

  • Edward Douglas White (Associate Justice 1894-1910, Chief Justice 1910-1921)
  • Harlan Fiske Stone (Associate Justice 1925-1941, Chief Justice 1941-1956)
  • William H. Rehnquist (Associate Justice 1972-1986, Chief Justice 1986-2005)

Two had a break in service between their periods of service:

  • John Rutledge (Associate Justice 1789-1791, Chief Justice 1795)
  • Charles Evans Hughes (Associate Justice 1910-1916, Chief Justice 1930-1941)

How long is the term of a Supreme Court Justice?

The Constitution states that Justices "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour." This means that the Justices hold office as long as they choose and can only be removed from office by impeachment.

Has a Justice ever been impeached?

The only Justice to be impeached was Associate Justice Samuel Chase in 1805. The House of Representatives passed Articles of Impeachment against him; however, he was acquitted by the Senate.

Who decides how many Justices are on the Court? Have there always been nine?

The Constitution places the power to determine the number of Justices in the hands of Congress. The first Judiciary Act, passed in 1789, set the number of Justices at six, one Chief Justice and five Associates. Over the years Congress has passed various acts to change this number, fluctuating from a low of five to a high of ten. The Judiciary Act of 1869 fixed the number of Justices at nine and no subsequent change to the number of Justices has occurred.

Do the Justices have any responsibilities other than hearing and deciding cases?

The federal circuit courts of appeals and district courts are organized into 13 federal circuits and each Justice is responsible for emergency applications and other matters from one or more of these circuits. For example, individual Justices may be asked to halt the implementation of a circuit court order, set bond for a defendant, or stop the deportation of an alien. Justices are also asked to act on applications for a stay of execution.

Do all of the Justices have to be present in order to hear a case?

A quorum of six Justices is required to decide a case. Justices may also participate in a case by listening to audio recordings of the oral arguments and reading the transcripts.

How many cases are appealed to the Court each year and how many cases does the Court hear?

The Court receives approximately 7,000-8,000 petitions for a writ of certiorari each Term. The Court grants and hears oral argument in about 80 cases.

Information from the official website of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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