Top 5 Conservative Supreme Court Justices

Updated by Robert Longley

While the Constitution of the United States creates the U.S. Supreme Court, it doesn’t even mention politics. In fact, America’s Founding Fathers intended that the justices of the Supreme Court should be blind to politics, looking only to their knowledge of case law and the Constitution for guidance. However, with the realities of politics and public opinion being what they are, the nine justices are typically classified as being conservative, moderate, or liberal in their interpretations of law and what constitutes “justice.” The influence of politics on the judicial branch dates back to the “midnight judges” scandal of 1801 when Federalist Party President John Adams battled his own Anti-Federalist Party Vice President Thomas Jefferson over the appointments of 42 judges. Today, it is commonly assumed that the justices’ votes, especially on high-profile cases, reflect both their political and legal philosophies.

It is even harder to separate Supreme Court justices from their political philosophy when it plays such a major role in their being chosen to serve. Presidents typically nominate justices who share their own political beliefs, if not party affiliation. For example, when the decidedly conservative President Donald Trump made his first Supreme Court appointment in 2017, he successfully nominated conservative Judge Neal Gorsuch to replace the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, a standout on the list of most conservative justices.

After being nominated by the president, hopeful new Supreme Court justices face politically-charged public hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee and final confirmation by a majority vote of the full Senate. Having defended themselves against the political slings and arrows of the nomination and confirmation process, new justices are immediately expected to function as nonpartisan and objective triers of fact and interpreters of the law.

When asked by a law student about the best first step toward someday securing a federal judgeship, Justice Antonin Scalia quickly replied, “Get involved in politics.”

The Role of Conservative Justices

Perhaps the most important role of a conservative judiciary is securing the courts against judicial activism by liberal judges aiming to reinvent the Constitution. Conservative judges not only need to practice judicial restraint, they must also take steps to overturn unconstitutional decisions. Nowhere is this concept more important than on the US Supreme Court, where judicial interpretation sets the ultimate legal precedent. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, Byron White and Samuel Alito have all had a major impact on the interpretation of US law.

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Associate Justice Clarence Thomas

Clarence Thomas
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Arguably the most conservative Justice in recent US Supreme Court history, Clarence Thomas is well-known for his conservative/libertarian leanings. He strongly supports state's rights and takes a strict constructivist approach to interpreting the US Constitution. He has consistently taken political conservative positions in decisions dealing with executive power, free speech, the death penalty and affirmative action. Thomas is unafraid of voicing his dissent with the majority, even when it is politically unpopular. Justice Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991 by Republican President George H.W. Bush. 

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Associate Justice Samuel Alito

Samuel Alito
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President George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had decided to step down from the bench earlier in the year. He was confirmed by a vote of 58-42 in January of 2006. Aliton has proven to be the better of the Justices appointed by President Bush. Chief Justice John Roberts ended up being the deciding vote in favor of keeping Obamacare, to the befuddlement of many conservatives. Alito dissented in major opinions on Obamacare, as well as a ruling in 2015 that effectively legalized gay marriage in all 50 states. Alito was born in 1950 and could serve ont he court for decades to come.Justice Alito was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2006 by Republican President George W. Bush.

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Associate Justice Antonin "Nino" Scalia

Antonin Scalia
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While the confrontational style of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Gregory "Nino" Scalia was widely regarded as one of his less appealing qualities, it underscored his clear sense of right and wrong. Motivated by a strong moral compass, Scalia opposed judicial activism in all its forms, favoring instead judicial restraint and a constructivist approach to the interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia had stated on numerous occasions that the power of the Supreme Court is only as effective as the laws created by Congress. Justice Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 by Republican President Ronald Reagan and served until his death on February 13, 2016. 

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Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist

William Rehnquist
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From his appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 until his death in 2005, Supreme Court Justice William Hubbs Rehnquist served as Chief Justice of the United States and became a conservative icon. Rehnquist's term on the High Court began in 1972, when he was appointed by Richard M. Nixon. He wasted no time in distinguishing himself as a conservative, offering one of only two dissenting opinions in the controversial 1973 abortion-rights case, Roe v. Wade. Rehnquist was a strong supporter of state's rights, as outlined in the Constitution, and took the concept of judicial restraint seriously, consistently siding with conservatives on the issues of religious expression, free speech and the expansion of federal powers.

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Former Associate Justice Byron "Whizzer" White

Byron R. White
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As one of only two Justices to cast a dissenting opinion in the landmark 1972 abortion-rights ruling

would have secured his place in conservative history had it been his only decision. White nevertheless practiced judicial restraint throughout his career on the High Court and was nothing if not consistent in his support of state's rights. Although he was appointed by president John F. Kennedy, Democrats saw White as a disappointment, and White himself said he was most comfortable serving under conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist and most uncomfortable in the very liberal Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren.

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Hawkins, Marcus. "Top 5 Conservative Supreme Court Justices." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hawkins, Marcus. (2023, April 5). Top 5 Conservative Supreme Court Justices. Retrieved from Hawkins, Marcus. "Top 5 Conservative Supreme Court Justices." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).