The announcement by the President of the United States of his nominee for Supreme Court justice never fails to capture the attention nor to elicit the opinions of Americans across the country. Although the nominee has already undergone the vetting process before selection — an extensive endeavor that involves culling through the minutiae of the nominee’s personal and professional background — the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings are the other major hurdle along the road to securing the position. Despite the American public’s proclivity for watching the entire process unfold on television and through other media, most people lack a strong grasp on the essential facts surrounding the position of Supreme Court justice. To add a bit of clarity, the following five facts illuminate the details of selection and service as a justice.
Qualifications for Supreme Court Justice
Interestingly, while the Constitution is quite explicit in its requirements to become President of the United States, it makes no mention of any requirements to become a Supreme Court Justice, eschewing mention of age, professional training or even American birth. However, by tradition, a few trends have become expectations over the more than 225 years since the inception of the position. For instance, with regard to profession and age, justices have generally worked as lawyers or judges prior to their nomination and most are in their 40s or 50s when nominated. Moreover, a majority of the justices have attended law school at either Yale or Harvard, with others having attended a few other elite universities. While these qualities form a solid legal foundation, each has become integral to the selection process solely by dint of repetition.
Term of Service
Under the Constitution, Supreme Court Justices are afforded lifetime appointment on the Court. Neither age nor ill health precludes their continued service. As the judicial branch of government, given equal authority as the legislative and executive branches, the Supreme Court justices’ lifetime positions on the court provide them the autonomy to make decisions without any political regard for the other branches. Additionally, their ability to remain on the Court for life prevents interference from the other two branches of government. William O. Douglas, for example, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s nominees, was the longest serving justice, his tenure lasting 36 years and 209 days, from 1939 through his retirement in 1975.
The Number of Justices
Originally, the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created the Supreme Court, specified that six justices would comprise the Court. Since then, Congress, which has retained the authority to determine the number of justices, has changed that number eight times, ultimately settling on nine justices under the Judiciary Act of 1869, with eight associate justices and one chief justice. While George Washington nominated the entire membership of the first Supreme Court as well as replacing those who died, for a total of 11 nominees, the second most justices were nominated by Franklin Roosevelt, who nominated eight.
Responsibilities of Supreme Court Justices
The U.S. government’s checks and balances system vests each of the three branches of government with the authority and responsibility to temper the powers of the other two. Thus, the Supreme Court’s primary undertaking, judicial review, is to check the actions of both the President and Congress for the constitutionality of those actions. As the highest level of the judiciary, the Supreme Court’s responsibilities encompass appellate jurisdiction as well. It enables the Court to review lower court decisions when the party who has been significantly and directly injured by the implementation of a law seeks redress by challenging the constitutionality of the law. Finally, in its exercise of original jurisdiction, the Supreme Court acts in the role of trial court in cases involving disputes between states or between a state and the federal government.
Removal of Supreme Court Justices
Playing a central role in the professional lives of Supreme Court justices, deportment can elevate or destroy a career. While it is true that no qualifications are dictated for selection of the justices, the Constitution specifically state that the justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” The obvious conclusion to be inferred is that upon commission of less than good behavior, justices can be removed, which the Constitution provides for through impeachment. However, the fact is that only one justice, Samuel Chase, has actually been impeached by the House of Representatives, ultimately being acquitted by the Senate in 1804. Additionally, in anticipation of impeachment, Justice Abe Fortas resigned.
From the selection of the justices to their execution of their duties, Supreme Court Justices are part of highly circumscribed procedures coupled with tradition. These five facts lend credence to the power and majesty of their positions.
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