Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Supreme Court

By Emma Petasis
June 29, 2018 | Blog

On Wednesday, Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement after 30 years of service. Throughout his tenure, the Supreme Court made landmark decisions on important issues such as gay marriage, campaign finance, and the death penalty. These rulings highlight the importance of the court as they have changed the course of history and play an important role in the lives of millions of Americans. Here are five facts on the Supreme Court and the justices who serve on it.

There are no official qualifications to become a Supreme Court justice

It may be difficult to believe, but while the Constitution spells out specific requirements for both Congress and the presidency, it has no such specifications for the Supreme Court. Unlike the presidency, justices do not have to have been born in the United States. To date, six justices have been foreign born. The most recent was Felix Frankfurter, a Native of Vienna, Austria, who served from 1939 to 1962.  In addition, unlike both the executive and congressional branches, there is no age requirement. The youngest justice to sit on the bench was Joseph Story, who was 32 when he joined the court in 1811. However, there is one thing that every justice has in common: All were lawyers prior to becoming justices.

A simple majority vote is required to confirm justices to the Supreme Court

Prior to the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017, all nominees to the Supreme Court required a vote from 3/5 of the Senate—or 60 votes—in order to be confirmed. However, in 2017 Republicans controlled the Senate 51-49 and Democrats were widely opposed to Gorsuch’s confirmation. Consequently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) changed the rules so that Gorsuch could be confirmed by a simple majority vote. While Democrats were upset by the change in precedent, the first time such an action had been taken was in 2013, when the Democrats controlled the Senate and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) changed the threshold from 60 to 51 votes in order to confirm lower court and cabinet nominees.

Beginning with President Eisenhower in 1953, presidents have traditionally sought the advice of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary when evaluating all potential Supreme Court nominees

The evaluations have three possible rankings: not qualified, qualified, and well-qualified. Every member of the Supreme Court has received a rating of “well-qualified.” However, in 2017, President Trump decided not to request a rating on then-nominee Gorsuch and instead to “welcome the ABA’s evaluations of its judicial nominees on a post-nomination basis.” However, the ABA still submitted a report to the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to Justice Gorsuch’s confirmation, giving him a rating of “well-qualified.”

After the President nominates a Supreme Court justice, they must undergo a vetting process in the Senate

The first step a Supreme Court nominee must undergo is a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee in which the nominee gives testimony—answering questions from senators and highlighting their qualifications to hold the prestigious position. Assuming the committee approves of the justice following his or her hearing, they then present the nominee before the full Senate. Upon reaching majority consent, the justice is approved as an official member of the Supreme Court.

Throughout history, the Senate has officially received 162 Supreme Court justice nominations

However, a nomination to the Supreme Court does not guarantee that one will sit on the bench. Over the years, 118 of these justices were confirmed and served on the court. Seven more were confirmed but declined to serve—the most recent being Roscoe Conkling in 1882. Several nominees have not even received a hearing. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers, but had to withdraw her nomination following strong opposition from both parties over her lack of judicial experience. Most recently, President Obama nominated U.S. Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland in 2016. However, because Republicans controlled the Senate, Majority Leader McConnell was able to refuse Judge Garland a hearing, arguing that President Obama was in the last year of his term and that the next justice should not be nominated until the American people could vote for a new president.

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