How The Court Works | Selecting Justices

More than two centuries have elapsed since president George Washington nominated John Jay as Chief Justice and five other lawyers as Associate Justices. Since the Court first convened in New York City, 113 Americans have sat on the Supreme Court, serving an average of 16 years each. The president’s choices for appointment to the Court have all been lawyers, although there is no constitutional or legal requirement to that effect.

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George Washington established a pattern of geographical distribution, with three southerners and three northerners from six different states. Generally, but by no means always, Presidents seek to appoint Justices from their own political party, and those who share their political and philosophical views. 

With the passage of years, the make-up of the Court has tended to reflect the dominant threads in the weave of American society. All the Justices were protestants until 1835, when President Andrew Jackson chose Roger B. Taney, a Catholic, as Chief Justice. President Woodrow Wilson appointed the first Jew, Louis D. Brandeis, as an Associate Justice in 1916. The first African-American Justice, and only the second Justice to lie in state in the Great Hall following his death, was Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed by president Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. The first nomination of an Italian-American was that of Justice Antonin Scalia, who ascended to the high bench in 1986.

The invisible wall that had kept women off the Court was shattered in 1981 when President Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor, a 51-year-old judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals. On November 14, 1980, in anticipation of the possible appointment of a woman, the Justices had decided to drop the "Mr." in front of "Justice," which until that time had been used in published opinions and official records for 190 years. When, almost a year later, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to sit on the high bench, the new usage was already established, and "Justice O’Connor" was a natural way to address her. But most attorneys addressing the bench still open their remarks with the familiar "Mr. Chief Justice." Twelve years after O’Connor’s appointment, President Bill Clinton chose another woman to be his first nominee to the Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 60, had served for 13 years on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010, and the bench is currently one third female.

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