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In the US, do You Have to Have Judicial Experience to be Eligible to Become a Supreme Court Justice?

By Ken Black
Updated: May 17, 2024

To become a Supreme Court justice in the United States, no judicial experience is required, though it may make the process a lot less complicated. Supreme Court justices traditionally have had a background steeped in the practice of law. However, the only requirement for those hoping to become a Supreme Court justice is for the president to appoint and the Senate to confirm.

The first step for those interested in serving on the Supreme Court is to first become familiar with the law, commonly achieved through becoming a licensed attorney. Judicial experience is helpful but attorneys who are familiar with United States law and policy, such as those serving in Congress or other official capacities, may make excellent Supreme Court justices. Once a potential justice has staked out his or her career, the next step is to get recognized by the president.

Most of the time, for those seriously in contention to become a Supreme Court justice, getting the attention of the president is not a problem. Most of the serious nominees move within the Washington political circles, becoming familiar with other key governmental figures. Though a particular candidate may be more endearing to one party or the other, all most have to do is wait for the party they are more closely aligned with to be voted into the White House.

Once a vacancy occurs, staffers the president assigns specifically for the task will vet those on the short list to become a Supreme Court justice. This vetting will explore, in detail, the candidate's personal life. Those with exceptionally embarrassing stories or regrets may think twice about being a candidate at this point.

Once the president makes a selection, it might be tempting to think the pathway is clear to become a Supreme Court justice. However, if the president's party is not in charge of the Senate, or if the margin of majority is close, contentious confirmation hearings could develop. These usually take place first in the Senate Judiciary Committee. In most cases, the Senate does eventually vote to confirm the appointment. In fact, of 144 nominees for the U.S. Supreme Court since the process began, only 30 have ever been rejected by the Senate. However, some have withdrawn their candidacies after it became clear that a confirmation would not happen.

Though it is not necessary to have judicial experience to become a Supreme Court justice, it is during the confirmation process that it may prove to be most helpful. Many senators, especially if they are of the opposite party from the president, may balk at nominating someone without a judicial record that can be analyzed. Also, nominating a candidate with no judicial experience is likely to be considered a political payoff, rather than a true attempt to find the best person for the job.

In some cases, even if a majority of the Senate is of the president's party, a nomination can be stifled. In order to invoke cloture, which means cut off debate, 60 senators must vote to do so. During the early part of the Bush's term, though the Republicans had the majority, they did not have 60 votes. Some nominees waited months for votes on the Senate floor until a deal was struck between a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic senators that stipulated nominees would receive a fair vote, in all but the most extreme cases.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By anon93106 — On Jul 01, 2010

this brings up the perfect current event: Elaina Kagan has had no lawyer or judge experience ever. Yet Obama picked her? She is Solicitor General, but she has never been a lawyer or judge before.

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