The Federal Court System


Judges fulfill a vital role in the U.S. judicial system and are carefully selected. At the federal level, the president nominates a candidate to a judgeship or justice position, and the nominee must be confirmed by a majority vote in the U.S. Senate, a function of the Senate’s “advice and consent” role. All judges and justices in the national courts serve lifetime terms of office.

The president sometimes chooses nominees from a list of candidates maintained by the American Bar Association, a national professional organization of lawyers.American Bar Association Coalition for Justice. 2008. “Judicial Selection.” In American Bar Association, eds. American Judicature Society and Malia Reddick. The president’s nominee is then discussed (and sometimes hotly debated) in the Senate Judiciary Committee. After a committee vote, the candidate must be confirmed by a majority vote of the full Senate. He or she is then sworn in, taking an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

When a vacancy occurs in a lower federal court, by custom, the president consults with that state’s U.S. senators before making a nomination. Through such senatorial courtesy, senators exert considerable influence on the selection of judges in their state, especially those senators who share a party affiliation with the president. In many cases, a senator can block a proposed nominee just by voicing his or her opposition. Thus, a presidential nominee typically does not get far without the support of the senators from the nominee’s home state.

Most presidential appointments to the federal judiciary go unnoticed by the public, but when a president has the rarer opportunity to make a Supreme Court appointment, it draws more attention. That is particularly true now, when many people get their news primarily from the Internet and social media. It was not surprising to see not only television news coverage but also blogs and tweets about President Obama’s most recent nominees to the high court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (Figure).

Image A is of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Image B is of Justice Elena Kagan.
President Obama has made two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor (a) in 2009 and Elena Kagan (b) in 2010. Since their appointments, both justices have made rulings consistent with a more liberal ideology. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016 has prompted the most recent discussion of appointing a new justice, with Obama nominating Merrick Garland to fill the vacant seat. However, action on this nominee is unlikely given the election of Republican Donald Trump to the presidency. The Republican Senate will take up a Trump nominee in early 2017.

Presidential nominees for the courts typically reflect the chief executive’s own ideological position. With a confirmed nominee serving a lifetime appointment, a president’s ideological legacy has the potential to live on long after the end of his or her term.American Bar Association Coalition for Justice. 2008. “Judicial Selection.” In American Bar Association, eds. American Judicature Society and Malia Reddick. President Obama surely considered the ideological leanings of his two Supreme Court appointees, and both Sotomayor and Kagan have consistently ruled in a more liberal ideological direction. The timing of the two nominations also dovetailed nicely with the Democratic Party’s gaining control of the Senate in the 111th Congress of 2009–2011, which helped guarantee their confirmations.

But some nominees turn out to be surprises or end up ruling in ways that the president who nominated them did not anticipate. Democratic-appointed judges sometimes side with conservatives, just as Republican-appointed judges sometimes side with liberals. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower reportedly called his nomination of Earl Warren as chief justice—in an era that saw substantial broadening of civil and criminal rights—“the biggest damn fool mistake” he had ever made. Sandra Day O’Connor, nominated by Republican president Ronald Reagan, often became a champion for women’s rights. David Souter, nominated by Republican George H. W. Bush, more often than not sided with the Court’s liberal wing. And even on the present-day court, Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, has become notorious as the Court’s swing vote, sometimes siding with the more conservative justices but sometimes not. Current chief justice John Roberts, though most typically an ardent member of the Court’s more conservative wing, has twice voted to uphold provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Once a justice has started his or her lifetime tenure on the Court and years begin to pass, many people simply forget which president nominated him or her. For better or worse, sometimes it is only a controversial nominee who leaves a president’s legacy behind. For example, the Reagan presidency is often remembered for two controversial nominees to the Supreme Court—Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg, the former accused of taking an overly conservative and “extremist view of the Constitution”John M. Broder. “Edward M. Kennedy, Senate Stalwart, Is Dead at 77.” New York Times. 26 August 2009. and the latter of having used marijuana while a student and then a professor at Harvard University (Figure). President George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers was withdrawn in the face of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, questioning her ideological leanings and especially her qualifications, suggesting she was not ready for the job.Michael A. Fletcher and Charles Babington. “Miers, Under Fire From Right, Withdrawn as Court Nominee.” Washington Post. 28 October 2005. After Miers’ withdrawal, the Senate went on to confirm Bush’s subsequent nomination of Samuel Alito, who remains on the Court today. The 2016 presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was especially important because the next president is likely to choose three justices.

Image A is of Robert Bork. Image B is of Douglas Ginsburg. Image C is of Harriet Miers.
Presidential nominations to the Supreme Court sometimes go awry, as illustrated by the failed nominations of Robert Bork (a), Douglas Ginsburg (b), and Harriet Miers (c).

Presidential legacy and controversial nominations notwithstanding, there is one certainty about the overall look of the federal court system: What was once a predominately white, male, Protestant institution is today much more diverse. As a look at Table reveals, the membership of the Supreme Court has changed with the passing years.

Supreme Court Justice Firsts
First Catholic Roger B. Taney (nominated in 1836)
First Jew Louis J. Brandeis (1916)
First (and only) former U.S. President William Howard Taft (1921)
First African American Thurgood Marshall (1967)
First Woman Sandra Day O’Connor (1981)
First Hispanic American Sonia Sotomayor (2009)

The lower courts are also more diverse today. In the past few decades, the U.S. judiciary has expanded to include more women and minorities at both the federal and state levels.Bureau of International Information Programs. United States Department of State. Outline of the U.S. Legal System. 2004. However, the number of women and people of color on the courts still lags behind the overall number of white men. As of 2009, the federal judiciary consists of 70 percent white men, 15 percent white women, and between 1 and 8 percent African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American men and women.Russell Wheeler. “The Changing Face of the Federal Judiciary.” Governance Studies at Brookings. August 2009.