Supreme Court Justices – The Senate Confirmation Process

The Chambers of the US Supreme Court
The Chambers of the US Supreme Court. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Under Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, the President of the United States alone is empowered to nominate Supreme Court Justices and the U.S. Senate is required to confirm those nominations. Because the Constitution does not set any qualifications for service as a Justice, the President may nominate any individual to serve on the Court.

Several steps are involved in the Supreme Court justice appointment and confirmation process.

After being nominated by the president, candidates are subjected to a series of often politically partisan hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee composed of lawmakers from both parties. The committee may also call other witnesses to testify regarding the suitability and qualifications of the candidate to serve on the Supreme Court.

Consideration by Senate Judiciary Committee

  • The Judiciary Committee sends the nominee a questionnaire. The questionnaire requests the nominee's biographical, financial and employment information, and copies of the nominee's legal writings, opinions issued, testimony and speeches.
  • The Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the nomination. The nominee makes an opening statement and then answers questions from the Committee members. The hearing can take several days and the questioning can become politically partisan and intense.
    • After the hearing is completed, Committee members are given one week to submit written follow-up questions. The nominee submits written responses.
    • Finally, the Committee votes on the nomination. The Committee can vote to send the nomination to the full Senate with a recommendation of either approval or rejection. The Committee can also vote to send the nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation.

      Consideration by the Full Senate

      • After receiving the recommendation of the Judiciary Committee, the full Senate holds its own hearing and debates the nomination. The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee leads the Senate hearing. The senior Democratic and Republican members of the Judiciary Committee lead their party's questioning. The Senate hearing and debate typically take less than a week.
      • Finally the full Senate will vote on the nomination. A simple majority vote of the Senators present is required for the nomination to be confirmed.

      Swearing In

      If the Senate confirms the nomination, the nominee usually goes directly to the White House to be sworn in. The swearing in is typically conducted by the Chief Justice. If the Chief Justice is not available, any Supreme Court Justice can administer the oath of office.

      How Long Does All of This Usually Take?

      According to records compiled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, it takes an average of 2-1/2 months for a nominee to reach a full vote in the Senate.

      How Many Nominations are Confirmed?

      Since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, presidents have submitted 161 nominations for the Court, including those for chief justice. Of this total, 124 were confirmed, including 7 nominees who decline to serve.

      About Recess Appointments

      Presidents may and have also placed justices on the Supreme Court using the often-controversial recess appointment process.

      Whenever the Senate is in a recess, the president is allowed to make temporary appointments to any office requiring Senate approval, including vacancies on the Supreme Court, without the Senate's approval.

      Persons appointed to the Supreme Court be a recess appointment are allowed to hold their positions only until the end of the next session of Congress – or for a maximum of two years. In order to continue to serve afterwards, the nominee must be formally nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.