Know Your Supreme Court

01
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Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts
The Understudy Chief Justice John Roberts. Image Courtesy of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

Biographies of Current Supreme Court Justices

When an unconstitutional bill passes Congress and is signed by the president, or when it is passed by a state legislature and signed by the governor, the Supreme Court is the last line of defense against its enforcement.

The nine justices who make up the Roberts Court--the Supreme Court under the tenure of newly-minted Chief Justice John Roberts--are far more diverse, and far more fascinating, than conventional wisdom might suggest.

Meet your Supreme Court. Their job is to protect our rights. When they do, we owe them our gratitude for a job well done. When they don't, our very existence as a liberal democracy is threatened.

"[T]he chief justice has a particular obligation to try to achieve consensus ... and that would certainly be a priority for me."

The young chief justice hasn't made his mark on the U.S. Supreme Court yet, but his history suggests that he is a natural centrist with a strong respect for precedent and legal tradition.

Vital Statistics


51 years old. Graduate of Harvard University (summa cum laude, 1976) and Harvard Law School (magna cum laude, 1979), where he served as managing editor of the Harvard Law Review. Lifelong Roman Catholic. Married to attorney Jane Sullivan Roberts, with two young adopted children.

Career Background


1979-1980: Clerked for Justice Henry Friendly of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Friendly, an aging, widely-respected justice who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter in 1977, had served on the circuit court since 1959.

1980-1981: Clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. Rehnquist would become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1986.

1981-1982: Special Assistant to U.S. Attorney General William F. Smith under the Reagan administration.

1982-1986: Associate counsel to President Ronald Reagan.

1986-1989: Associate counsel at Hogan & Hartson, the largest law firm in Washington, D.C.

1989-1993: Principal Deputy Solicitor General for the U.S. Department of Justice under the first Bush administration.

1992: Nominated to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by George Bush, but his nomination never received a Senate vote and was ultimately lost in the shuffle following Bill Clinton's victory over Bush in the 1992 presidential election.

1993-2003: Head of the appellate practice division at Hogan & Hartson.

2001: Nominated for a second time to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the nomination died in committee before receiving a Senate vote.

2003-2005: Associate Justice for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals after being nominated for a third time in 2003.

Nomination and Approval


In July 2005, President George W. Bush nominated Roberts to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But that September, before Roberts' name could be brought to the Senate for approval, Chief Justice William Rehnquist passed away. Bush withdrew Roberts' name for consideration as a replacement for O'Connor and nominated him to replace Rehnquist instead. Roberts was approved by the Senate later that month by a 78-22 margin, receiving enthusiastic support from many prominent civil libertarians such as Sens. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
02
of 09

Associate Justice Samuel Alito

Associate Justice Samuel Alito
The Enigma Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Image Courtesy of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals

"Good judges are always open to the possibility of changing their minds based on the next brief they read or the next argument that is made..."

The newest member of the U.S. Supreme Court is regarded as a reliable conservative, but his record is that of an unpredictable and fiercely independent justice who isn't afraid to hand down unpopular rulings. There are already indications that his tenure on the Court may surprise critics and supporters alike...

Vital Statistics


56 years old. Graduate of Princeton University (1972), where his yearbook entry read: "Sam intends to go to law school and eventually to warm a seat on the Supreme Court." Went on to graduate from Yale Law School (1975), where he served as editor of the Yale Law Review. Lifelong Roman Catholic. Married to law librarian Martha-Ann Bomgardner Alito, with two adult children.

Career Background


1975: On active duty with the U.S. Signal Corps, where he achieved the rank of second lieutenant. Continued to serve as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve until he was honorably discharged in 1980.

1976-1977: Clerked for Justice Leonard Garth of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

1977-1981: Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

1981-1985: Assistant to the Solicitor General for the U.S. Department of Justice under the Reagan administration.

1985-1987: Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice.

1987-1990: U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

1990-2006: Associate Justice for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Nominated by President George Bush.

1999-2004: Adjunct Professor of Law at Seton Hall University.

Nomination and Approval


In July 2005, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced that she would retire as soon as a replacement could be found. When President George W. Bush nominated Alito in October, his name raised considerable controversy for a variety of reasons:

(1) His conservative reputation (he had already been branded with the unfortunate nickname of "Scalito" due to purported similarities between his judicial philosophy and that of Justice Scalia).

(2) Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's status as a moderate "swing vote" in many cases, and the perception that her replacement, regardless of ideology, would alter the balance of the Court.

(3) More general hostility directed against the Bush administration, centering on the War in Iraq.

Alito was approved by the Senate in January 2006 by a razor-thin 58-42 margin, after months of fierce opposition from progressive activist groups. He received the support of only four Democratic senators.
03
of 09

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer

Stephen Breyer
The Philosopher Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

"The court has found no single mechanical formula that can accurately draw the constitutional line in every case."

Because he trusts the democratic process more than he does sweeping judicial philosophies, Justice Breyer writes without footnotes and generally supports the will of Congress. When he does strike down legislation, he does so with remarkable calmness and objectivity.

Vital Statistics


67 years old. Graduated from Stanford University (magna cum laude, 1959), Oxford University (first-class honours, 1961), and Harvard Law School (magna cum laude, 1964), where he served as articles editor of the Harvard Law Review. Reform Jew. Married to British clinical psychologist Joanna Hare Breyer, with three adult children and two grandchildren.

Career Background


1964-1965: Clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.

1965-1967: Assistant (for the Antitrust Division) to U.S. Attorneys General Nicholas Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark under the Johnson administration.

1967-1994: Assistant Professor of Law at Harvard University, upgraded to full Professor in 1970. Also served as a Professor in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government from 1977-1980.

1973: Member of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force.

1974-1975: Special Counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

1975: Visiting Professor of Law at the College of Law in Sydney, Australia.

1979-1980: Chief Counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

1980-1990: Associate Justice of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

1985-1989: Member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

1990-1994: Chief Justice of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

1993: Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Rome in Rome, Italy.

Nomination and Approval


In May 1994, President Bill Clinton nominated Breyer to replace the retiring Associate Justice Harry Blackmun. Facing little controversy and broad bipartisan support, he was approved (87-9) by the Senate.

Landmark Cases


Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003): Dissented from a majority ruling affirming the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which added 20 years to the life of a registered copyright.

Illinois v. Lidster (2004): Wrote for a 6-3 majority in ruling that roadblocks set up to gather information on a specific criminal investigation may not be used to conduct unrelated searches on motorists.

Oregon v. Guzek (2006): Wrote for a unanimous Court which ruled that new alibi evidence may not be introduced at the sentencing phase of a trial.
04
of 09

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
The Progressive Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

"Dissents speak to a future age."

No justice is more visibly committed to civil liberties than this former ACLU general counsel, whose interpretation of the Constitution is informed by international human rights standards and rooted in a concern for the vulnerable and marginalized.

Vital Statistics


73 years old. Graduate of Cornell University (1954), attending Harvard Law School before transferring to Columbia University Law School (summa cum laude, 1959), where she graduated with the highest grade point average ever recorded. Reform Jew. Married to Georgetown University law professor Martin D. Ginsburg, with two adult children and two grandchildren.

Career Background


1959-1961: Clerked for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York.

1961-1963: Associate Director of the Columbia University Law School Project on International Procedure.

1963-1972: Professor of Law at Rutgers University.

1972-1980: Founder and Chief Litigator of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, and Professor of Law at Columbia University.

1977-1978: Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University.

1980-1993: Associate Justice of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nomination and Approval


In June 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to replace retiring Associate Justice Byron White. She was approved by the Senate by a 96-3 margin.

Landmark Cases


United States v. Virginia (1996): Wrote a 7-1 majority opinion striking down Virginia Military Intitute's men-only admissions policy, opening up all U.S. military academies to female students.

Reno v. ACLU (1997): Wrote the majority opinion striking down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which attempted to ban all "indecent" Internet content.

Bush v. Gore (2000): Wrote a stinging dissent protesting the 5-4 ruling that ended manual recounts in Florida during the 2000 elections and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush.

Tasini v. New York Times (2001): Wrote a 7-2 majority opinion establishing that publishers may not resell print articles in electronic databases without authors' permission.

Ring v. Arizona (2002): Wrote the majority opinion establishing that judges acting alone may not sentence prisoners to death.
05
of 09

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy
The Adjudicator Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

"The case for freedom (and) for our constitutional principles (and) for our heritage has to be made anew in each generation. The work of freedom is never done."

As a moderately conservative justice with a strong commitment to the Bill of Rights, including the implicit right to privacy, Justice Kennedy is frequently the justice whose opinion transforms a 4-5 dissent into a 5-4 majority--or vice versa.

Vital Statistics


69 years old. Graduated from Stanford University (1958) with transfer coursework from the London School of Economics, then from Harvard Law School (1961). Roman Catholic. Married childhood friend Mary Davis, with three adult children.

Career Background


1961-1963: Associate counsel at Thelen, Marrin, John & Bridges in San Francisco, California.

1963-1967: Independent attorney working in Sacramento, California.

1965-1988: Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of the Pacific.

1967-1975: Partner at Evans, Francis & Kennedy in Sacramento, California.

1975-1988: Associate Justice of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nomination and Approval


When Associate Justice Lewis Powell retired in June 1987, President Ronald Reagan had some difficulty in getting a replacement confirmed by the Senate. First he nominated the extremely conservative Robert Bork, who was rejected (or, as we call it today, "Borked") 42-58 by the newly Democratic Senate. Reagan next nominated Douglas Ginsburg, who was forced to step down after revelations of marijuana use. Reagan's third choice was Kennedy, nominated that November, who was unanimously (97-0) confirmed by the Senate.

Landmark Cases


Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): Shocked observers by joining a 5-4 majority upholding the Roe v. Wade (1973) precedent, protecting the right to privacy. With the resignation of anti-Roe Justice Byron White in 1993, and his replacement by pro-Roe Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the majority expanded to 6-3. Recent changes in the Supreme Court (most notably, the retirement of pro-Roe Justice Sandra Day O'Connor) may have narrowed the majority to 5-4 once again.

Bush v. Gore (2000): Joined a 5-4 majority halting manual recounts in Florida and awarding the presidency to George W. Bush.

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003): Dissented from a 5-4 majority that upheld the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies.

Lawrence v. Texas (2003): Wrote for a 6-3 majority striking down sodomy laws as unconstitutional.

Roper v. Simmons (2005): Wrote for a 5-4 majority opinion prohibiting the execution of juveniles.
06
of 09

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia
The Curmudgeon Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

"What in the world is a 'moderate' interpretation of a constitutional text? Halfway between what it says and what we'd like it to say?"

Outspoken and unapologetic, Justice Scalia writes some of the most fierce and compelling dissents in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. Although he is frequently described as a right-wing justice, his philosophy is more strict than it is conservative--focusing on the narrowest, most literal intepretations of the Bill of Rights. This tends to produce conservative rulings, but every now and then he surprises us all...

Vital Statistics


70 years old. Graduated from Georgetown University and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland (1957), then graduated from Harvard Law School (1960), where he served as note editor of the Harvard Law Review. Lifelong Roman Catholic. Married to Maureen McCarthy Scalia, with nine adult children and 26 grandchildren.

Career Background


1960-1961: Received of a Frederick Sheldon Fellowship at Harvard University, which allowed him to study law in Europe.

1961-1967: Associate counsel at Jones, Day, Cockley, and Reavis in Cleveland, Ohio.

1967-1971: Professor of Law at the University of Virginia.

1971-1972: General counsel for the U.S. Office of Telecommunications Policy.

1972-1974: Chairman of the U.S. Administrative Conference.

1974-1977: Assistant (for the Office of Legal Counsel) to U.S. Attorney General Edward H. Levi under the Carter administration.

1977-1982: Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University and Stanford University.

1982-1986: Associate Justice for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nomination and Approval


In June 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Scalia to replace Associate Justice Rehnquist, who had just been promoted to replace retiring Chief Justice Warren Burger. After strong bipartisan support, he was unanimously (98-0) approved by the Senate.

Landmark Cases


Employment Division v. Smith (1990): Wrote a 6-3 majority opinion establishing that laws banning ceremonial peyote use do not violate the First Amendment's free exercise clause.

Kyllo v. United States (2001): Wrote a 5-4 majority opinion establishing that use of thermal imaging to examine a residence constitutes a search, and is prohibited under the Fourth Amendment unless a warrant is obtained.

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004): Joined Justice Stevens in a strong dissent in which they argued that U.S. citizens should never be classified as enemy combatants, and are always entitled to protections granted by the Bill of Rights.
07
of 09

Associate Justice David Souter

Associate Justice David Souter
The Doubter Associate Justice David Souter. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

"It is much easier to modify an opinion if one has not already persuasively declared it."

When Justice Souter was nominated, many viewed him as a traditional conservative. Sometimes he is. Today, he's often regarded as the most liberal justice on the bench. Sometimes he's that, too. The truth is that he is still as much of a "stealth candidate" as he was in 1990--thoughtful, complex, and completely independent.

Vital Statistics


66 years old. Graduated from Harvard College (magna cum laude, 1961), then attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar (A.B. and M.A., 1963) before earning his law degree from Harvard Law School (1966). Episcopalian. Lifelong bachelor.

Career Background


1966-1968: Associate counsel at Orr & Reno in Concord, New Hampshire.

1968-1971: Assistant Attorney General (Criminal Division) for the State of New Hampshire.

1971-1976: Deputy Attorney General for the State of New Hampshire.

1976-1978: Attorney General for the State of New Hampshire.

1978-1983: Associate Justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court.

1983-1990: Associate Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

1990: Associate Justice of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nomination and Approval


In July 1990, President George Bush nominated Souter to replace the retiring Associate Justice William J. Brennan. Although the press referred to him as a "stealth justice" because of his relative silence on hot-button issues, he breezed through the Senate confirmation process (90-9).

Landmark Cases


Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002): Wrote a fierce dissent arguing that school voucher programs violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.

MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster (2005): Wrote a unanimous 9-0 ruling stating that peer-to-peer Internet file databases that profit from distribution of copyrighted materials can be sued for copyright infringement.

Kelo v. City of New London (2005): Joined a 5-4 majority ruling which stated that cities may condemn privately-owned real estate as part of a redevelopment plan under eminent domain, with "just compensation" given under the Fifth Amendment. Although Justice Stevens wrote the unpopular ruling, Souter was targeted in a special way by officials in his hometown of Weare, New Hampshire, who attempted to claim his family home under eminent domain and turn it into a "Lost Liberty Hotel." The proposal, which in any case clearly exceeded the boundaries set under Kelo and never would have passed constitutional muster, was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin in a March 2006 ballot initiative.
08
of 09

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens

Associate Justice John Paul Stevens
The Maverick Associate Justice John Paul Stevens. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

"It is not our job to apply laws that have not yet been written."

The cheerful, bowtied Justice Stevens has confounded Court watchers for decades with his strict refusal to fall in line with liberal or conservative blocs. As justices and judiciary movements come and go, the Court's longest-serving member continues to hand down groundbreaking new rulings and dissents.

Vital Statistics


86 years old. Graduated from the University of Chicago (1941) and Northwestern University Law School (magna cum laude, 1947), where he served as co-editor of the prestigious Illinois Law Review. Congregationalist. Married twice, currently to Maryan Mulholland Simon, with eight children, various grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

Career Background


1942-1945: Intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Earned a Bronze Star.

1947-1948: Clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley Rutledge.

1950-1952: Associate counsel at Poppenhusen, Johnston, Thompson & Raymond in Chicago, Illinois.

1950-1954: Lecturer in Antitrust Law at Northwestern University.

1951-1952: Associate Counsel to the Subcommittee on the Study of Monopoly Power of the Judiciary, the U.S. House of Representatives.

1952-1970: Partner at Rothschild, Stevens, Barry & Myers in Chicago, Illinois.

1953-1955: Served on the National Committee to Study Antitrust Law under U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell during the Eisenhower administration.

1955-1958: Lecturer in Antitrust Law at the University of Chicago.

1970-1975: Associate Justice of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nomination and Approval


In December 1975, President Gerald Ford nominated Stevens to replace the retiring Associate Justice William O. Douglas. He was approved unanimously (99-0) by the Senate.

Landmark Cases


Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation (1978): Ruled that the FCC could regulate indecent speech in broadcast media during hours where children are likely to be watching or listening.

Bush v. Gore (2000): Fiercely dissented in the 5-4 case that granted George W. Bush the presidency.

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000): Ruled that laws specifically designed to encourage student-led prayer at public school events violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.
09
of 09

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
The Executive Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Image Courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court

"America was founded on a philosophy of individual rights, not group rights."

Many observers say that Justice Scalia is the most conservative member of the Court, but that distinction really belongs to Justice Thomas. A relentless critic of abortion, affirmative action, church-state separation, and restrictions on presidential powers, but an equally relentless supporter of free speech rights, he is not a consistently right-wing justice--but he is more consistent in that respect than any of his peers.

Vital Statistics


57 years old. Attended Conception Seminary (1967-1968) while considering the Roman Catholic priesthood, but settled on a career in law instead. Graduated from Holy Cross College (summa cum laude, 1971) and Yale Law School (1974). Roman Catholic. Divorced, with one adult son.

Career Background


1974-1977: Assistant Attorney General for the State of Missouri.

1977-1979: Staff counsel for the Monsanto Company, a biotechnology corporation.

1979-1981: Legislative assistant to Sen. John Danforth (R-MO).

1981-1982: Assistant Secretary of Education for the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, under the Reagan administration.

1982-1990: Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under the Reagan and Bush administrations.

1990-1991: Associate Justice of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Nomination and Approval


In July 1991, President George Bush nominated Thomas to replace retiring Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. Justice Thomas' confirmation process was complicated by accusations leveled against him by his former assistant, Anita Hill, who alleged that Thomas had sexually harassed her while they worked together at the EEOC. Thomas was ultimately approved by a razor-thin 52-48 margin, the closest Supreme Court confirmation since the 19th century.

Landmark Cases


Printz v. United States (1997): Although the Printz ruling struck down several gun control laws on Commerce Clause grounds, Justice Thomas wrote a separate concurrence holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms and would have also rendered the laws unconstitutional, independent of Commerce Clause concerns.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002): Concurred with the majority decision that Ohio's school vouchers program does not violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004): In a lone dissent, argued that the president has near-unrestricted authority to classify U.S. citizens as enemy combatants during wartime.