Published on Aug 2, 2018

On July 9, President Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to fill seat on the Supreme Court left by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy on July 21. The nomination goes to the Senate for Confirmation. It takes a simple majority to confirm. There are 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats in the Senate. John McCain is away from Washington while receiving treatment for brain cancer. If he is not there to vote, the Republicans will need all 50 votes to win the nomination. According to SCOTUS watch 31 Republicans are “likely yes” and 16 are “definitely yes” leaving 4 unknown. Some predict that one or more Democrats may vote yes giving the Republicans some leeway. The hearings should prove interesting.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest federal court of the United States. It was established in 1789 by Article III of the U.S. Constitution. It has the power to hear appeals from all federal courts and state courts involving challenges to federal law. Generally, SCOTUS has last word on interpretation of federal laws and the US Constitution, but it may only act within the confines of a case before it.

How many Justices are there?

When the Court was first established, there were six justices, however only five had been appointed when the first session was held at the Royal Exchange Building in February of 1790. After a week of inactivity, they adjourned until September and everyone went home. The number of Justices varied from six to ten until 1869 when Congress set the number to nine where it remains to this day.

How are Justices selected?

The U.S. Constitution states the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of Senate, shall appoint Judges of the Supreme Court.” Most presidents nominate candidates who share their political views. Because the Constitution sets no qualifications for service as a justice, a president can nominate anyone, subject to Senate approval.

Once a nomination is made, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings and interviews the nominee. They then vote on whether the nomination should go to the full Senate with a positive, negative or neutral evaluation. Rejections by the full Senate have occurred 12 times. The most recent was Robert Bork, nominated by President Reagan in 1987. The average number of days from nomination to final vote is 67.

Once the Senate confirms a nomination, the president signs a commission to which the Seal of the Department of Justice is attached before the Justice can take office. A justice’s seniority is based on the commission date.

How long do Justices serve?

The Constitution states the justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” The term “good behavior” means justices may serve for the remainder of their lives. Justices can be removed it they are impeached and convicted by the Senate. Samuel Chase was impeached by the House of Representatives in1804; however, he was acquitted by the Senate. William O. Douglas was subject to impeachment twice in 1953 and 1970. Abe Fortas resigned in 1969 when impeachment hearings were being organized. There is no method to remove a justice who is physically or mentally incapacitated if they do not resign.

During Court sessions, justices sit according to seniority. The Chief Justice sits in the center with the Associate Justices on alternating sides. The most senior Associate Justice sits on the Chief Justice’s immediate right, and the most junior Associate Justice seated on the left farthest away from the Chief Justice. In the official yearly Court photograph, justices are arranged similarly, with the five most senior members seated in the front row in the same order as they would sit during Court sessions and the four most junior justices standing behind them, again in the same order as they would sit during Court sessions.

What are the Court’s Judicial Leanings?

Justices don’t receive political endorsements; however, they are informally placed in one of three categories—conservative, liberal or moderate. These categories refer to the justices’ legal outlook rather than a political or legislative bent. Currently, the conservative justices are Chief Justice Roberts and associate justices Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch. All were appointed by Republican presidents. Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, appointed by Democratic presidents, are considered the liberal wing.

Who are the Justices?

Today’s court consists of:

  • Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was born in 1955 and is a graduate of Harvard Law. President George W. Bush appointed him to fill the seat left when Chief Justice Rehnquist passed away. He was confirmed in September 2005 by a vote of 78-22.
  • Justice Clarence Thomas, born in 1948, is graduate of Yale Law. He was nominated to SCOTUS in1991by George H.W. Bush and ultimately confirmed by a vote of 52-48.
  • Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, born 1933, studied at Harvard Law and graduated from Columbia Law School. Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and confirmed by a 96-3 vote, she was the court’s second female justice.
  • Justice Stephen G. Breyer, born in 1938, graduated from Harvard Law. He was nominated by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by an 87-9 vote in 1994.
  • Justice Samuel A. Alito, born in 1950, is Yale Law School graduate. Nominated by George W. Bush, he was confirmed by vote of 58-42 in 2006.
  • Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor, born in 1954, is a graduate of Yale Law School. Prior to her nomination by President Barack Obama in 2009 to fill a vacancy, she served on US Court of Appeals. She was confirmed that year as the court’s 111th justice, the third woman and the first person of Hispanic descent to serve on the court.
  • Justice Elena Kagan was born in 1960 in New York City. She is a graduate of Princeton, Oxford University and Harvard Law. She was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2010 and confirmed that year by 63-37 vote.
  • Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, born in 1967, was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2017. A graduate of Harvard Law, he was confirmed by a 54-45 vote.

For those keeping score, four of the justices graduated from Harvard Law School, three from Yale Law School and one from Columbia Law. If Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, Yale Law will move up to four members.

Tune in later for more on the U.S. Supreme Court. We will look at its history and role in American government.

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