When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died, it created a scramble (and squabble) on Capitol Hill to find a replacement. The reaction was warranted since it’s the highest position a legal mind can hold outside of the presidency itself.
The Supreme Court is made up of nine judges – one chief justice and eight associate judges. Their decisions can plot courses for the entire country for decades to come, and once they elected, they remain a Supreme Court judge until death or retirement (unless they are impeached). Quick history factoid – only one judge has ever been impeached. Samuel Chase was impeached in 1805, but it was strictly political, and the Senate later acquitted Chase.
So what does it take to become one of the most influential judges in America? Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to getting a seat on the Supreme Court.
It Starts With a Good Education
Ideally, you would begin paving the way to the Supreme Court in high school by joining the debate team and student council. While these extra curricular activities are a solid start, they aren’t necessary – but a college degree is.
When you are in undergraduate school, you’ll need to major in a law-related field. Receiving a BA from reputable criminal justice schools like GMercyU, which is located near D.C. in Philadelphia, is just as good as going to an Ivy League university at this point. Regardless of where you go to college, maintaining a high GPA and interning will set the stage for becoming a Supreme Court judge.
Where you go to law school can really make a difference. This is where networking, knowing the right people and available opportunities come into play. It’s ideal to go to law school in or around Washington, D.C., like the University of Virginia Law School. Attending top law schools like Stanford or Harvard (Chief Justice Roberts' alma mater) will also make it easier to reach the Supreme Court.
Intern Within the Political Sphere
While in college, soon-to-be Supreme Court judges begin internships with politicians and political organizations. This will help you start building a resume and list of referrals to use once you’ve graduated law school and passed the bar. The Judicial internship program with the Supreme Court is highly competitive, but earning a spot will be extremely beneficial.
Start Working as a Lawyer or a Law Clerk
As soon as you have a law degree in hand, you’ve got to start using your legal knowledge. Almost all of today’s Supreme Court judges spent the majority of their career working for the federal government. To give you an idea of what your first job out of law school should be, here’s a look at what the current Supreme Court judges did right after graduating:
· John G. Roberts, Jr. - Law clerk for Judge Henry J. Friendly of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
· Anthony M. Kennedy – Worked in private practice in San Francisco, CA while also serving as a member of the California Army National Guard
· Clarence Thomas - Assistant Attorney General of Missouri
· Ruth Bader Ginsberg - Law clerk for Edmund L. Palmieri, Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York
· Stephen G. Breyer - Law clerk to Justice Arthur Goldberg of the Supreme Court
· Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr. - Law clerk for Leonard I. Garth of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
· Sonia Sotomayor - Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney's Office
· Elena Kagan – Law clerk for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit
Keep Active in Politics During Your Spotless Career
No matter who you work for after law school, it’s important to stay active in politics. Continue to build your career and work your way up the federal ladder by gaining a reputation as a trustworthy, skilled lawyer. The Supreme Court is tasked with being the fair, level-headed entity of the judicial branch of government. Your record will reflect whether you have the characteristics and ethics needed for the job.
You’ll also need to have a spotless record.
Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president. They tend to look within their own party for a nominee, so who you support could make a difference. The president will consider highly-experienced individuals who have shown leadership and sound decision making throughout their careers.
Confirmation Hearings and Senate Vote
You’d think that being tapped by the President would usher you right in to the Supreme Court, but the U.S. government has a complex system of checks and balances. There needs to be a majority vote in the Senate to officially confirm a Supreme Court nominee.
Before that happens there is a long confirmation hearing. Senators will ask the nominee dozens of questions to gain a better understanding of how they may rule on certain cases. Again, politics is at play.
The New York Times published an article not too long ago in which they discussed Senate confirmation tactics that have been used by nominees for decades. They looked at a report written by Chief Justice Roberts when he was a 26-year old lawyer tasked with helping prep nominee Sandra Day O’Conner for her Senate confirmation hearing. The general strategy was to “avoid giving specific responses to any direct questions on legal issues likely to come before the court but demonstrating in the response a firm command of the subject area and awareness of the relevant precedents and arguments.”
It’s a strategy that’s still used today to secure a position on the U.S. Supreme Court.