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.

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Career Background

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...

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Career Background

Nomination and Approval

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
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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.

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Career Background

Nomination and Approval

Landmark Cases

(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.

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Nomination and Approval

Landmark Cases

(2002): Wrote the majority opinion establishing that judges acting alone may not sentence prisoners to death.

05
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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.

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Career Background

Nomination and Approval

Landmark Cases

(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...

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Nomination and Approval

Landmark Cases

(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.

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Nomination and Approval

Landmark Cases

and never would have passed constitutional muster, was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin in a March 2006 ballot initiative.

08
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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.

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Nomination and Approval

Landmark Cases

(2000): Ruled that laws specifically designed to encourage student-led prayer at public school events violate the First Amendment's establishment clause.

09
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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.

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Career Background

Nomination and Approval

Landmark Cases

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