United States Supreme Court Justices
Since 1789, more than 100 Associate Justices and 17 Chief Justices have served on the United States Supreme Court. Their ranks include an ex-President, the U.S. Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Nazi war crimes trial, former New York and California governors, and even a football star.
Some have authored opinions that made huge changes to the legal landscape — like Miranda v. Arizona, Brown v. Board of Education, Citizens United, and Roe v. Wade. Others reside in the distant corners of this nation's memory.
They come from various academic and economic backgrounds. Most went to law school, but some did not (especially in the early days). Some worked as attorneys in private practice. Others focused on government work.
In this section, you can learn more about the history of the Supreme Court and how it functions. You can also read about both current and past justices who served on the court.
More on the Supreme Court
The image above depicts several demographic factors for Supreme Court justices in the United States. Figures in the middle show the vast majority of justices have been men, about 95%. A round chart on the left shows that around 97% of justices have been white, 2% Black, and 1% Hispanic. A round chart on the right shows that just over a third (36%) attended an Ivy League law school, while 31% attended other law schools.
In the court's early years, most lawyers and judges did not attend law school. Instead, they studied the law independently and through apprenticeships. These justices are represented by the final two education categories in the graph — 27% only obtained undergraduate degrees, and 6% were entirely self-taught.
The image above uses different colored horizontal bars to show how long each of the current Supreme Court justices has been in their post. The length of their tenure is calculated as of April 2023.
At the bottom, with the longest bar, is Clarence Thomas, who has been on the court for 31 years. Above Thomas, represented by a green bar about half the length of Thomas's, is Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts has been Chief Justice for a little more than 17 years. Next is a yellow bar for Samuel Alito, who has also been on the court for 17 years. Alito joined the court just a few months after Roberts.
Sonia Sotomayor is represented by an orange bar above Alito. She has been a Supreme Court justice for nearly 14 years. A light blue bar above Sotomayor depicts Elena Kagan's twelve and a half years on the court.
A light green bar shows that Neil Gorsuch has been on the court for almost six years. Brett Kavanaugh's four and a half years on the court displays as a small red bar. A small purple bar shows that Amy Coney Barrett has been a Supreme Court justice for about two and a half years. Finally, a very small dark blue rectangle represents the few months since Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the court.
How Are Supreme Court Justices Appointed?
Article III of the U.S. Constitution granted judicial power in the nation to "one supreme Court" and gave Congress the power to create additional "inferior" courts. However, it does not give Congress the power to choose who sits on the Supreme Court. That power is reserved for the president by Article II.
Supreme Court justices receive lifetime appointments, so the president only gets to nominate someone if a justice dies or decides to retire. The Appointments Clause states that the president must nominate and appoint Supreme Court justices "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate." Today, the Senate's advice and consent take the form of confirmation hearings.
Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings
After the president nominates a candidate for the Supreme Court, the Senate Judiciary Committee collects the necessary records and schedules a hearing. During the hearing, senators can question the nominee on their qualifications, their philosophy as a judge or lawyer, and more. Witnesses can also present their support or opposition to a nominee during the confirmation hearing.
Then, the Judiciary Committee votes to either confirm or reject the candidate. They send this recommendation to the rest of their colleagues in the Senate. The rest of the Senate debates the nomination and takes a vote. If a simple majority (at least 51 senators) vote for the nominee, their nomination is confirmed.
Were SCOTUS Confirmation Hearings Always Controversial?
For many years, nominating Supreme Court justices was a fairly smooth process. But in recent decades, confirmation hearings have become more contentious and politically charged.
The 1987 nomination of Robert Bork kicked off years of partisan divisions over Supreme Court seats. Bork was a controversial nominee. He opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, believed there was no constitutional right to privacy, and disagreed with the Supreme Court's previous rulings on gender equality. Senate Democrats opposed Bork so strongly that "bork" became a word in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines it as an unfair attack or defeat "through an organized campaign of harsh public criticism or vilification." And it worked — Bork's nomination was shot down in a 58-42 vote.
In 1991, a Supreme Court nomination became a national firestorm once again. Now-Associate Justice Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual misconduct by a former employee, Anita Hill. The fourteen men on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Hill on live television when she gave testimony against Thomas. In the end, the Senate confirmed Justice Thomas's nomination in a narrow 52-48 vote. He is now the longest-serving current justice.
When President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to hold a hearing. They argued that it was too close to the upcoming election, which was about nine months away. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell claimed whoever won the 2016 election should get to fill the vacancy. After Donald Trump became president, he nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia's seat.
Confirmation hearings continue to generate much debate in the Senate, usually along party lines. For example, in 2018, Senate Republicans confirmed Justice Brett Kavanaugh despite allegations of sexual assault and numerous ethics complaints from lower court judges against him.
But despite complaints that the court has become too politicized, Chief Justice John Roberts maintains that the court does not function based on politics "and the results in our cases do not suggest otherwise."