What Are the Requirements to Become a Supreme Court Justice?

Gavel
Tetra Images / Getty Images

There are no explicit requirements in the U.S. Constitution for a person to be nominated to become a Supreme Court justice. No age, education, job experience, or citizenship rules exist. In fact, according to the Constitution, a Supreme Court justice does not need to even have a law degree.

What Does the Constitution Say?

The Supreme Court was established as a body in Article Three of the Constitution, signed in convention in 1787. Section I describes the roles of the Supreme and Lower Courts; the other two sections are for the kind of cases that should be examined by the Supreme Court (Section 2, since amended by the 11th Amendment); and a definition of treason. 

"The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office." Article 3, U.S. Constitution

However, since the Senate confirms justices, experience and background have become important factors in the confirmations, and conventions have been developed and largely followed since the first selection of the court during the first president's term of office.

George Washington's Requirements

The first U.S. President George Washington (1789–1797) had, of course, the most number of nominees to the Supreme Court—14, although only 11 made it to the court. Washington also named 28 lower court positions, and had several personal criteria that he used to pick a justice:

  1. Support and advocacy of the U.S. Constitution
  2. Distinguished service in the American Revolution
  3. Active participation in the political life of a particular state or the nation as a whole
  4. Prior judicial experience on lower tribunals
  5. Either a "favorable reputation with his fellows" or personally known to Washington himself
  6. Geographic suitability—the original Supreme Court were circuit riders
  7. Love of the country

Scholars say his first criterion was the most important to Washington, that the individual had to have a strong voice in protecting the Constitution. The most any other president has been able to nominate is nine, during the four terms of office of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1932–1945), followed by six nominated by William Howard Taft in his single term from 1909 to 1913.

Qualities That Make a "Good Judge"

Several political scientists and others have attempted to assemble a list of criteria that make a good federal judge, more as an exercise of looking at the past history of the court. American scholar Sheldon Goldman's list of eight criteria includes:

  1. Neutrality as to parties in litigation 
  2. Fair-mindedness 
  3. Being well-versed in the law
  4. The ability to think and write logically and lucidly 
  5. Personal integrity
  6. Good physical and mental health 
  7. Judicial temperament 
  8. Able to handle judicial power sensibly

Selection Criteria

Based on the 200+ year history of selection criteria actually used by United States presidents, there are four which most presidents use in varying combinations:

  • Objective merit
  • Personal friendship
  • Balancing "representation" or "representativeness" on the court (by region, race, gender, religion)
  • Political and ideological compatibility 

Sources