How Long It Takes to Confirm U.S. Supreme Court Nominees

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February 2016, leaving President Barack Obama with a rare opportunity to nominate a third member of the nation's highest court and dramatically swing the ideological balance to the left.

Within hours of Scalia's death, though, a partisan fight erupted over whether Obama should choose Scalia's replacement or leave the choice to the president being elected in 2016. Senate Republican leaders vowed to stall or block an Obama nominee.

The political battle raised an interesting question: How long does it actually take the Senate to confirm a president's Supreme Court nominee? And would there be enough time in the last year of Obama's second and final term to push a nominee through the often nasty confirmation process?

Scalia was found dead on Feb. 13, 2016. There were 342 days remaining in Obama's term.

Here are three things to know about how long it takes to confirm Supreme Court nominees.

It Takes An Average of 25 Days

An analysis of Senate action on Supreme Court nominees since 1900 found that it takes less than a month for the candidate to be either confirmed or rejected or in some cases to withdraw from consideration altogether.

Current Court Members Were Confirmed in 2 Months

The eight members of the Supreme Court at the time of Scalia's death were confirmed in an average of 68 days, an analysis of government records found.

Here's a look at how many days the Senate took to confirm members of those eight Supreme Court justices, from shortest duration to longest:

  • John G. Roberts Jr.: 19 days. He was nominated by President George W. Bush on Sept. 6, 2005, and confirmed on Sept. 25 by a vote of 78 to 22.
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 50 days. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton on June 14, 1993, and confirmed on Aug. 3, 1993, by a vote of 96 to 3.
  • Anthony M. Kennedy: 65 days. He was nominated by President Ronald Reagan on Nov. 30, 1987, and confirmed on Feb 3, 1988, by a vote of 97 to 0.
  • Sonia Sotomayor: 66 days. She was nominated by President Barack Obama on June 1, 2009, and was confirmed on August 6, 2009, by a vote of 68 to 31.
  • Stephen G. Breyer: 74 days. He was nominated by President Bill Clinton on May 17, 1994, and confirmed on July 29, 1994, by a vote of 87 to 9.   
  • Samuel Anthony Alito Jr: 82 days. He was nominated by President George W. Bush on Nov. 10, 2005, and confirmed on Jan. 31, 2006, by a vote of 58 to 42.
  • Elena Kagan: 87 days. She was nominated by Obama on May 10, 2010, and confirmed on August 5, 2010, by a vote of 63-37.
  • Clarence Thomas: 99 days. He was nominated by President George H.W. Bush on July 8, 1991, and confirmed on Oct. 15, 1991, by a vote of 52 to 48.

The Longest Confirmation Ever Took 125 Days

The longest the U.S. Senate has ever take to confirm a Supreme Court nominee was 125 days, or more than four months, according to government records. The nominee was Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to ever be chosen for a seat on the high court. President Woodrow Wilson tapped Brandeis on Jan. 28, 1916, and the Senate didn't vote until June 1 of that year.

Brandeis, who entered Harvard Law School without earning a traditional college degree beforehand, faced allegations of holding political views that were too radical. His most vocal critics included former presidents of the American Bar Association and former President William Howard Taft. "He is not a fit person to be a member of the Supreme Court of the United States," the Bar Association presidents wrote.

The second-longest confirmation battle ended with the rejection of the nominee, Reagan pick Robert Bork, after 114 days, Senate records show.

Last Election-Year Nominee Was Confirmed in 2 Months

Funny things happen in presidential election years, however. Lame-duck presidents get very little done and are often powerless. That being said, the last time a president pushed for confirmation of a Supreme Court justice during a presidential election year was in 1988, for Reagan's choice of Kennedy for the court.

The Senate, controlled by Democrats at the time, took 65 days to confirm the Republican president's nominee. And it did so unanimously, 97 to 0.

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Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "How Long It Takes to Confirm U.S. Supreme Court Nominees." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). How Long It Takes to Confirm U.S. Supreme Court Nominees. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "How Long It Takes to Confirm U.S. Supreme Court Nominees." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).