Government & Politics

Here’s how the United States replaces a Supreme Court justice

On June 17, 1986, President Ronald Reagan announced the nomination of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court as a result of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s resignation. William Rehnquist is at right.
On June 17, 1986, President Ronald Reagan announced the nomination of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court as a result of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s resignation. William Rehnquist is at right. The Associated Press

It has been nearly six years since a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court was filled. The last justice to be appointed was Associate Justice Elena Kagan, the court’s 112th justice and fourth woman justice. She assumed office in August 2010, replacing Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired.

Here’s the replacement process:

1. The president makes a nomination.

Article Two of the United States Constitution places the power of appointing justices with the president, stating: “ ... he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ... Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.”

2. The nomination is submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee holds hearings and questions the nominee on his or her suitability. It eventually votes on whether the nomination should go to the full Senate, giving the nominee a positive, negative or neutral report.

3. The full Senate then debates the nomination and votes.

A simple majority vote is needed to confirm a nominee. According to teachinghistory.org, the Senate has explicitly rejected 12 nominees in its history. It has failed to approve 24 additional nominees, postponing confirmation, taking no action or acting in ways that encouraged nominees to withdraw.

The death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia leaves the court with eight justices. On a 4-4 vote, the court traditionally does not issue an opinion and the decision of the lower court stands.

The current Senate has 44 Democrats, 54 Republicans and two independents.

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