What qualifications are needed to become a US Supreme Court justice?

There are no constitutional requirements for becoming a US Supreme Court justice; however, the President usually considers the recommendation and evaluation of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary. The ABA lists the following suggested minimum criteria for nomination to the US Supreme Court:

  1. Member in good standing in the state bar for at least five years
  2. Practicing trial attorney and/or trial judge for at least 12 years
  3. Competent citizen of good character, integrity, reason, intelligence, and judgment
  4. Distinguished accomplishments
  5. Required to be legal scholar

Practical Considerations and Interesting Facts:

  • While Article III of the Constitution does not specify the qualifications required of a Supreme Court Justice, or specify the size of the court, it does empower Congress to create legislation or make collective decisions that result in de facto requirements.
  • Because members of the Supreme Court must be experts on the Constitution, Constitutional law, and federal law, all past and present members of the Supreme Court have been attorneys.

    Those who were commissioned before the mid- to late-19th century learned the law by studying and apprenticing with more experienced attorneys; states didn't mandate licensing until the 20th-century.

  • Of the 112 Supreme Court members, only 47 have held degrees from accredited law schools; 18 attended law school, but never attained a degree; and 47 were self-taught and/or went through an apprenticeship.
  • The first Justice to graduate from law school was Benjamin Robbins Curtis, Harvard class of 1832, appointed to the bench in 1851.
  • The last sitting Justice without a formal law degree was Stanley Forman Reed, who served from 1938-1957.
  • Today, nominees are judged by the quality of the law school attended and the extent of their experience on the bench. Twenty-three of the 47 degreed candidates graduated from Harvard or Yale, while a number of the remainder graduated from other T14 (Top 14) schools.
  • On the current Court, six Justices went to Harvard, two to Yale, and one to Columbia.
  • Credentials have become so important over the last 50 years that, when Richard Nixon named Mildred Lillie and Hershel Friday as potential nominees for the Court in 1971, the American Bar Association objected on the grounds that they were unqualified for the position, and their names were withdrawn from the pool. The ABA also objected to President George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers, his personal attorney and White House counsel, to the bench in 2005.
  • Public service and political connections also factor heavily into the nomination process. For example, all but one appointee, George Shiras, Jr. (served 1892-1903), has held public office or been a judge prior to nomination, and three-fifths of the nominees have been personal acquaintances of the President who nominated them.
  • While the Constitution stipulates no minimum or maximum age for judicial service, most nominees are under the age of 60, to help ensure a long tenure on the court. Most are in their 40s or 50s when appointed. The youngest Justice ever seated was Joseph Story, at the age of 32, in 1812; the oldest at time of appointment was Charles Evan Hughes, who was 67, in 1930.
  • Most of the 112 Supreme Court members have been white, male, Protestants. The first Jewish Justice was Louis Brandeis, commissioned in 1916; the first of only two African-Americans was Thurgood Marshall, commissioned in 1967 (the second being Clarence Thomas, who replaced Marshall); the first of four females was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, commissioned in 1981, and retired in 2006. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Elena Kagan are currently serving. In addition to being the only the third of four women appointed to the Court, Sonia Sotomayor is also the first Latina commissioned. There are currently no Protestants serving on the Supreme Court.

For more information, see Related Questions, below.