How Are Federal Judges Selected?

Selection Process, Qualifications, and Term Limits

A man walks past the Supreme Court

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The term federal judge includes Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges. These judges make up the federal court system, which litigates all U.S. federal charges, upholding the rights and liberties contained within the Constitution. The selection process for these judges is laid out in Article II of the U.S. Constitution, while their powers can be found in Article III.

Key Takeaways: Federal Judge Selection

  • The United States President nominates potential federal judges.
  • The U.S. Senate confirms or rejects the President's nominees.
  • Once confirmed, a federal judge serves for life, with no term limits.
  • In rare cases, a federal judge can be impeached for failing to uphold "good behavior" under Article II of the Constitution.

Since the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the federal judicial system has maintained 12 district circuits, each with its own court of appeals, regional district courts, and bankruptcy courts.

Some judges are referred to as "federal judges", but are part of a separate category. The selection process for Magistrate and bankruptcy judges is separate from Supreme Court justices, court of appeals judges, and district court judges. A list of their powers and their selection process can be found in Article I.

Selection Process

The judicial election process is an important part of the Second Article of the U.S. Constitution.

Article II, Section II, Paragraph II reads:

"[The President] shall nominate [...] Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments."

In simplified terms, this section of the Constitution states that appointing a federal judge requires both nomination by the President and confirmation by the U.S. Senate. As a result, the President can nominate anyone, but may choose to take Congressional suggestions into consideration. The potential nominees may be vetted by the Senate through confirmation hearings. At the hearings, nominees are asked questions about their qualifications and judicial history.

Qualifications to Become a Federal Judge

The Constitution does not give specific qualifications for justices. Technically, a federal judge does not have to have a law degree to sit on the bench. However, judges are vetted by two different groups.

  1. The Department of Justice (DOJ): The DOJ maintains a set of informal criteria used to review a potential judge
  2. Congress: Congressional members suggest potential candidates to the President, using their own informal decision process.

Judges may be selected based on their past rulings in lower courts or their conduct as a lawyer. A president may prefer one candidate over another based on their preference for the opposing practices of judicial activism or judicial restraint. If a judge does not have prior judicial experience, it is difficult to predict how they may rule in the future. These predictions are strategic. The federal judicial system remains a check on Congress' legislative power, so Congress has a vested interest in seating a judge that favors the current majority's interpretation of the Constitution.

How Long Federal Judges Serve

Federal judges serve life terms. Once they are appointed, they are not removed as long as they uphold "good behavior." The Constitution does not define good behavior, but the U.S. Court system has a general code of conduct for judges.

Federal judges can be impeached for failing to show good behavior under Article II of the Constitution. Impeachment is broken down into two elements. The House of Representatives has the power to impeach, while the Senate has the power to try impeachments. Impeachment is extremely rare, shown by the fact that between 1804 and 2010 a total of 15 federal judges were impeached. Out of those 15, only eight were convicted.

The longevity of a federal judicial appointment makes the nomination and approval process extremely important to sitting presidents. Judgeships outlast the presidency by many years, meaning that a president might view a Supreme Court appointment as their legacy. Presidents do not control how many judges they can nominate. They nominate once seats open up or new judgeships are created.

Judgeships are created through legislation when needed. Need is determined by a survey. Every other year, a Judicial Conference run by the Judicial Resources Committee invites members of the courts across the U.S. to discuss the status of their judgeships. Then, the Judicial Resources Committee makes recommendations based on a variety of factors including geography, age of sitting judges, and diversity of cases. According to the U.S. Courts, "A threshold for the number of weighted filings per judgeship is the key factor in determining when an additional judgeship will be requested." Federal judgeships have grown in number over time, but the Supreme Court has remained constant, sitting nine justices since 1869.

Sources

  • “Code of Conduct for United States Judges.” United States Courts, www.uscourts.gov/judges-judgeships/code-conduct-united-states-judges.
  • “Federal Judges.” United States Courts, www.uscourts.gov/faqs-federal-judges.
  • “Federal Judge.” Ballotpedia, ballotpedia.org/Federal_judge.
  • “Impeachments of Federal Judges.” Federal Judicial Center, www.fjc.gov/history/judges/impeachments-federal-judges.
  • “Judgeship Appointments by President.” U.S. Courts, 31 Dec. 2017.
  • U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Sec. II.