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The nomination, confirmation, and appointment of Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States involves several steps set forth by the United States Constitution, which have been further refined and developed by decades of tradition. Candidates are nominated by the President of the United States and must face a series of hearings in which both the nominee and other witnesses make statements and answer questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which can vote to send the nomination to the full United States Senate. Confirmation by the Senate allows the President to formally appoint the candidate to the court. The Constitution does not set any qualifications for service as a Justice, thus the President may nominate any individual to serve on the Court.
Senate cloture rules historically required a two-thirds affirmative vote to advance nominations to a vote; this was changed to a three-fifths supermajority in 1975. In November 2013, the then-Democratic Senate majority eliminated the filibuster for executive branch nominees and judicial nominees except for Supreme Court nominees, invoking the so-called nuclear option. In April 2017, the Republican Senate majority applied the nuclear option to Supreme Court nominations as well, enabling the nomination of Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to proceed to a vote.
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Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, known as the Appointments Clause, empowers the president to nominate and, with the confirmation (advice and consent) of the United States Senate, to appoint public officials, including justices of the Supreme Court. This clause is one example of the system of checks and balances inherent in the Constitution. The president has the plenary power to nominate, while the Senate possesses the plenary power to reject or confirm the nominee.
Upon the election of a new President, incoming White House staff prepare profiles of possible candidates for the Supreme Court, considering not only judges but also politicians and other individuals whom they consider appropriate for the role. Besides considering national figures whose views are well-known, they consider others who are less recognized. They go through published rulings, articles, speeches, and other background material to get an idea of candidates' values and views on constitutional issues. Age, health, race, gender, education, and likelihood of confirmation are also factored into considerations. Once a Supreme Court vacancy opens, the President discusses the candidates with advisors. Senators also call the president with suggestions, though he is not obliged to take their advice on whom to nominate, neither does the Senate have the authority to set qualifications or otherwise limit who the president may select.
After a first choice is decided, the candidate is contacted and called on by the President to serve on the highest court. Staffers send a vetting form for the candidate to fill out. They visit the candidate to go over tax records and payments to domestic help. A formal FBI background check is conducted. Candidates whom the President has never met are interviewed by White House officials before being sent to the White House to be interviewed in person by the President. After making a final decision, the President calls the candidate, who is told to prepare a statement for an appearance in front of the national press for the President's formal announcement. The nominee then meets with senators and prepares for confirmation hearings.
Most Presidents nominate individuals who broadly share their ideological views. In many cases, however, a Justice's decisions may be contrary to what the nominating President anticipated. A famous instance was Chief Justice Earl Warren; President Dwight D. Eisenhower expected him to be a conservative judge, but his decisions are arguably among the most liberal in the Court's history. Eisenhower later called the appointment "the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made". Another Justice whose decisions ran contrary to what was believed to be his ideology was David Souter, who was nominated to the high court in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush. Many pundits and politicians at the time expected Souter to be a conservative; however, after becoming a Justice, his opinions generally fell on the liberal side of the political spectrum.
In modern times, the confirmation process has attracted considerable public attention. The Senate Judiciary Committee plays a key role in that process, as each Supreme Court nomination comes before it for review. The committee conducts hearings, examining the background of the nominee, and questioning him or her about their views on a variety of cases and their general judicial philosophy. At the close of confirmation hearings, the committee votes on whether the nomination should go to the full Senate with a positive, negative or neutral report.
The committee's practice of personally interviewing nominees is relatively recent, beginning with Harlan Fiske Stone in 1925. Some western senators were concerned with his links to Wall Street and expressed their opposition when Stone was nominated. Stone proposed what was then the novelty of appearing before the Judiciary Committee to answer questions; his testimony helped secure a confirmation vote with very little opposition. The second nominee to appear before the Judiciary Committee was Felix Frankfurter, who only addressed (at the committee's request) what he considered to be slanderous allegations against him. The modern practice of the committee questioning nominees on their judicial views began with the nomination of John Marshall Harlan II in 1955; the nomination came shortly after the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, and several southern senators attempted to block Harlan's confirmation, hence the decision to testify.
Once the committee reports out the nomination, it is put before the whole Senate for final consideration. A simple majority vote is required to confirm or to reject a nominee. Historically, such rejections are relatively uncommon. Of the 37 unsuccessful Supreme Court nominations since 1789, only 11 nominees have been rejected in a Senate roll-call vote. The most recent rejection of a nominee by vote of the full Senate came in October 1987, when the nomination of Robert Bork as an associate justice was rebuffed by a 42–58 vote.
Prior to 2017, a successful filibuster threat could add the requirement of a supermajority of 60 needed in favor of cloture, which would allow debate to end and force a final vote on confirmation. Under the old rule, a nominee could be filibustered once debate on the nomination had begun in the full Senate. A filibuster indefinitely prolongs the debate, preventing a final vote on the nominee. President Lyndon Johnson's 1968 nomination of incumbent Associate Justice Abe Fortas to succeed Earl Warren as chief justice, during the final year of his presidency, was subject to a successful filibuster which forced the president to withdraw the nomination.[A] The effort included both Republican and Democratic senators concerned about Fortas' business ethics. Though prevented from becoming chief justice, Fortas remained on the Court as an associate justice. More recently, an effort to filibuster President Donald Trump's nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the seat left vacant by Antonin Scalia's death was effective, if not successful. Unlike the Fortas filibuster, however, only Democratic Senators voted against cloture on the Gorsuch nomination, citing his perceived conservative judicial philosophy, and the Republican leadership's prior refusal to take up President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy. The Republican majority responded by changing the rules to allow for filibusters of Supreme Court nominations to be broken with only 51 votes rather than 60. The precedent for this action had been set in November 2013, when the Democrats, who then held the majority, changed the rules, lowering the threshold for advancing nominations to lower court and executive branch positions from 60 votes to a simple majority, but explicitly excluded Supreme Court nominations from the change.
There are others ways that a nomination can be derailed prior to the final vote in the Senate. A president has the prerogative to withdraw a nomination at any point during the process, typically doing so if it becomes clear that the Senate will reject the nominee. This occurred most recently with the nomination of Harriet Miers in 2006 before Committee hearings had begun, citing concerns about Senate requests during her confirmation process for access to internal Executive Branch documents resulting from her position as White House Counsel. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan withdrew the nomination of Douglas H. Ginsburg because of news reports containing marijuana use allegations.
Similarly, the Senate has the prerogative to table a nomination "indefinitely", effectively eliminating any prospect of the person's confirmation. Senators have voted to postpone a nomination on only three occasions (Crittenden, Taney, and King- all in the 19th century). Even so, the Senate can achieve the same outcome without taking vote to postpone. It can simply choose to take no action on a nomination, which expires at the end of the session. For example, President Dwight Eisenhower's first nomination of John Marshall Harlan II in November 1954 was not acted on by the Senate; Eisenhower re-nominated Harlan in January 1955, and Harlan was confirmed two months later. Most recently, the Senate refused to consider President Barack Obama's March 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland; the nomination expired in January 2017, and the vacancy was later filled by President Donald Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch.
Before 1981 the approval process of Justices was usually rapid. From the Truman through Nixon administrations, Justices were typically approved within one month. From the Reagan administration to the present, however, the process has taken much longer. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average number of days from nomination to final Senate vote since 1975 is 67 days (2.2 months), while the median is 71 days (or 2.3 months). Some believe this is because Congress sees Justices as playing a more political role than in the past. The perceived politicization of the process has drawn criticism. For example, columnist George F. Will termed the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination "unjust" and, more generally, that the nomination process does "not delve deeply into the nominee's jurisprudential thinking." Supreme Court nominations have aroused much media speculation about whether the judge leans to the left, middle, or right. One indication of the politicized selection process is how much time each nominee spends being questioned under the glare of media coverage; before 1925, nominees were never questioned; since 1955, every nominee has been required to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee and answer questions. Also, the hours spent being grilled have lengthened from single digits before 1980 to double digits today.
Following is a table of the approximate number of hours that media sources estimate were spent on the questioning of Supreme Court nominees since 1925:
|Year||Nominee||# Hours||# Questions[B]|
|1925||Harlan F. Stone||5||0|
|1955||John Marshall Harlan II||0||0|
|1957||William J. Brennan Jr.||3||0|
|1975||John Paul Stevens||6||5|
|1981||Sandra Day O'Connor||12||8|
|1993||Ruth Bader Ginsburg||20||20|
Once the Senate confirms the nomination by an affirmative vote, the Secretary of the Senate attests to a resolution of confirmation and transmits it to the president, who then signs a commission officially appointing the nominee to the Court. The date of commission determines a justice's seniority. Afterward, a ceremony is held at which the appointee must take the constitutional oath, which is used for every federal and state officeholder below the president, and the judicial oath used for federal judges before entering into the execution of their office.
It is at this point that a person has taken "the necessary steps toward becoming a member of the Court." Through October 2018, 126 nominees have been confirmed and appointed to the Court. Of these, seven either declined their commission or (in one instance) died before assuming office, and are not considered to have served as a Supreme Court justice.
Political scientist Michael Nelson wrote in 2012 that the Senate is less likely to approve Supreme Court nominations that are submitted during the final year of a presidency. Although Supreme Court vacancies rarely arise during the last year of a presidency, this type of situation received considerable public attention in 2016 following the death of Antonin Scalia, and again in 2020 upon the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Law professors Jason Mazzone and Robin Kar published a study in 2016 in which they wrote that a detailed analysis of Senate history does not support a deliberate inter-presidential transfer of nominating power from one president to the next. In their view, an actual vacancy ought to be viewed differently from a vacancy that is announced in advance but never actually vacated ("NV"); an elected president who makes a nomination ought to be viewed differently from a president-by-succession ("S"); and, a nomination made post-election-of-successor ("PE") should be distinguished from a nomination made earlier.
Following is a list of those people who were nominated to the Supreme Court during the last year of a president's last term.[C] This list does not include presidents who never had an opportunity to serve what would have been their last year, due to resignation or death.
|John Jay(CJ)||J. Adams||Fed||Mar. 4, 1801||Dec. 18, 1800||Fed||Confirmed[D]
Dec. 19, 1800
|John Marshall(CJ)||Jan. 20, 1801||Confirmed
Jan. 27, 1801
|John J. Crittenden||J. Q. Adams||Rep (A-C)[E]||Mar. 4, 1829||Dec. 17, 1828||Rep (J-C)[E]||Postponed[F]
Feb. 12, 1829
|John Catron||Jackson||Dem||Mar. 4, 1837||Mar. 3, 1837||Dem||Confirmed
Mar. 8, 1837
|William Smith||Mar. 3, 1837||Confirmed[D]
Mar. 8, 1837
|Peter Vivian Daniel||Van Buren||Dem||Mar. 4, 1841||Feb. 26, 1841||Dem||Confirmed
Mar. 2, 1841
|Reuben Walworth||Tyler||None||Mar. 4, 1845||Mar. 13, 1844||Whig||Withdrawn
June 17, 1844
|Edward King||June 5, 1844||Postponed[F]
June 15, 1844
|John C. Spencer||June 17, 1844||Withdrawn
June 17, 1844
|Reuben Walworth||June 17, 1844||No action[G]
Jun 17, 1844
|Reuben Walworth||Dec. 4, 1844||Withdrawn
Feb. 6, 1845
|Edward King||Dec. 4, 1844||Withdrawn
Feb. 8, 1845
|Samuel Nelson||Feb. 4, 1845||Confirmed
Feb. 14, 1845
|John M. Read||Feb. 7, 1845||No action||PE; S|
|Edward A. Bradford||Fillmore||Whig||Mar. 4, 1853||Aug. 16, 1852||Dem||No action||S|
|George E. Badger||Jan. 3, 1853||Withdrawn
Feb. 14, 1853
|William C. Micou||Feb. 14, 1853||No action||PE; S|
|Jeremiah S. Black||Buchanan||Dem||Mar. 4, 1861||Feb. 5, 1861||Dem||No action[H]
Feb 21, 1861
|William Burnham Woods||Hayes||Rep||Mar. 4, 1881||Dec. 15, 1880||Dem||Confirmed
Dec. 21, 1880
|Stanley Matthews||Jan. 26, 1881||No action[I]||PE|
|Melville Fuller(CJ)||Cleveland||Dem||Mar. 4, 1889||Apr. 30, 1888||Rep||Confirmed
July 20, 1888
|George Shiras Jr.||B. Harrison||Rep||Mar. 4, 1893||July 19, 1892||Rep||Confirmed
July 26, 1892
|Howell E. Jackson||Feb. 2, 1893||Confirmed
Feb. 18, 1893
|Abe Fortas(CJ)||L. Johnson||Dem||Jan. 20, 1969||June 26, 1968||Dem||Withdrawn[J]
Oct. 2, 1968
|Homer Thornberry||June 26, 1968||Withdrawn[K]
Oct. 2, 1968
|Merrick Garland||Obama||Dem||Jan. 20, 2017||Mar. 16, 2016||Rep||No action||—|
Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution provides that:
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
Thus, when the Senate is in recess, the President may make a temporary appointment to any office requiring Senate approval, including filling vacancies on the Supreme Court, without the Senate's advice and consent. Such a recess appointee to the Supreme Court holds office only until the end of the next Senate session (always less than two years). To continue to serve thereafter and be compensated for his or her service, the nominee must be formally nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Of the 12 justices who have received recess appointments (two as chief justice and ten as associate justice) only Chief Justice John Rutledge was not subsequently confirmed for a regular appointment. No president since Dwight Eisenhower has made a recess appointment to the Supreme Court and the practice has become highly controversial even when applied to lower federal courts. During the 110th Congress, the Democratic leadership of the Senate specifically blocked President George W. Bush, a Republican, from making any recess appointments with the use of pro forma sessions.
In 1960 the Senate passed a resolution stating that it was the sense of the Senate that recess appointments to the Supreme Court should not be made except under unusual circumstances. Being a resolution, it has no legally binding effect, but was intended as an expression of the position of the Senate and as a guide to executive actions. The resolution passed by a vote of 48 to 37, mainly along party lines.
Following is a list of recess appointments that have been made to the Supreme Court:
|President||Date||Date||Outcome and date|
|Thomas Johnson||Washington||August 5, 1791||October 31, 1791||Confirmed November 7, 1791|
|John Rutledge(CJ)||July 1, 1795||December 10, 1795||Rejected December 15, 1795|
|Bushrod Washington||J. Adams||September 29, 1798||December 19, 1798||Confirmed December 20, 1798|
|Henry Brockholst Livingston||Jefferson||November 10, 1806||December 15, 1806||Confirmed December 17, 1806|
|Smith Thompson||Monroe||September 1, 1823||December 5, 1823||Confirmed December 9, 1823|
|John McKinley||Van Buren||April 22, 1837||September 18, 1837||Confirmed September 25, 1837|
|Levi Woodbury||Polk||September 20, 1845||December 23, 1845||Confirmed January 3, 1846|
|Benjamin Robbins Curtis||Fillmore||September 22, 1851||December 11, 1851||Confirmed December 23, 1851|
|David Davis||Lincoln||October 17, 1862||December 1, 1862||Confirmed December 8, 1862|
|Earl Warren(CJ)||Eisenhower||October 2, 1953||January 11, 1954||Confirmed March 1, 1954|
|William J. Brennan Jr.||October 15, 1956||January 14, 1957||Confirmed March 19, 1957|
|Potter Stewart||October 14, 1958||January 17, 1959||Confirmed May 5, 1959|
The ability of a president to appoint new justices depends on the occurrence of a vacancy on the Court. In practice, such vacancies normally occur as the result of an incumbent justices' death, resignation, or retirement.
The Constitution provides that justices "shall hold their offices during good behavior", which is understood to mean that confirmed justices may serve for the remainder of their lives, until death. Justices may also resign or retire from their offices, and any of these circumstances results in a vacancy which must be filled. Because justices have indefinite tenure, the timing of future vacancies is unpredictable. Sometimes vacancies arise in quick succession: in September 1971, associate justices Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan II both retired, producing two vacancies which were filled in January 1972 by Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist, respectively. On the other hand, sometimes several years pass between consecutive vacancies. In August 1994, Harry Blackmun's retirement created a vacancy which was filled by Stephen Breyer. No further vacancy would occur on the Court until September 2005 when Rehnquist, since promoted to chief justice, died. This vacancy was filled by current chief justice John Roberts.
Less commonly, though with historical precedent, vacancies may occur as a result of Congress changing the size of the Court. Because the Constitution does not specify the Court's size, it was left to Congress to determine the matter through law, and a small number of statutes have legally changed the size of the Court throughout its history. Changing the Court's size can have the effect of changing the seats on the Court; a newly created seat brings with it a vacancy which must be filled by an initial officeholder. The original Judiciary Act of 1789 called for six justices, vacancies promptly filled by the appointments of George Washington, resulting in the Court's first complete composition. An 1801 act called for the Court to be reduced to five justices upon its next vacancy, but was swiftly obviated by an 1802 act which restored the Court's legal size to six before any such vacancy occurred. In 1807, the Court's size was increased to seven, creating one new vacancy filled by Thomas Todd. Again in 1837, the Court's size was increased to nine, the two new vacancies being filled by John Catron and John McKinley. An 1863 act increased the Court's size to ten, the vacancy being filled by Stephen Johnson Field. Although an 1866 act provided that the Court's size would be thinned from ten to seven through attrition (and which did result in the elimination of two seats while in effect), a final 1869 act interrupted the plan set forth in 1866: the Court's size shall be nine, the legally prescribed full strength which has stood ever since. Consequently, one final seat was created and filled by Joseph Bradley.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the Court in 1937, seeking to appoint an additional justice for each incumbent justice who reached the age of 70 years and 6 months and refused retirement; under Roosevelt's proposal, such appointments would continue until the Court reached a maximum size of 15 justices. Ostensibly, the proposal was made to ease the burdens of the docket on the elderly justices, but Roosevelt's actual purpose was to pack the Court with justices who would support New Deal policies and legislation. This plan, usually called the "Court-packing Plan", failed in Congress and proved a political disaster for Roosevelt. The balance of the Court shifted with the retirement of Willis Van Devanter and the confirmation of Hugo Black in August 1937. By the end of 1941, Roosevelt had appointed seven Supreme Court justices and elevated Harlan Fiske Stone to chief justice.
It is also possible that a vacancy could arise if a justice were removed from office following impeachment. Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the Constitution grants to the House of Representatives "the sole power of impeachment", and Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 grants to the Senate "the sole Power to try all Impeachments". The only justice to ever be impeached was Samuel Chase, in 1804; he was found not guilty by the Senate the following year, and remained in office until his death in 1811. Less substantial efforts towards impeachment of a sitting justice, not reaching a House vote, have occurred more recently: William O. Douglas was twice the subject of hearings, first in 1953 and again in 1970. No mechanism presently exists for removing a justice who is permanently incapacitated by illness or injury, both unable to resign and unable to resume service.
Despite the unpredictability of vacancies, most presidents have successfully appointed at least one justice. The four exceptions are William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. Harrison died a month after taking office, though his successor John Tyler made an appointment during that presidential term. Taylor likewise died early in his term, although his successor Millard Fillmore also made a Supreme Court nomination before the end of that term. Johnson was denied the opportunity to appoint a justice by the 1866 act which reduced the Court's size, mentioned above.
Resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that the making of recess appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States may not be wholly consistent with the best interests of the Supreme Court, the nominee who may be involved, the litigants before the Court, nor indeed the people of the United States, and that such appointments, therefore, should not be made except under unusual circumstances and for the purpose of preventing or ending a demonstrable breakdown in the administration of the Court's business.
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