Qualifications and Background of Federal Judges and Supreme Court Justices
Content Areas: U.S. Government, Law
Students are surprised to learn that the Constitution doesn't have what they might consider a job description for federal judges as it does for the president and members of Congress. Federal judges are appointed under Article III of the Constitution by the President of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate. They are appointed for life, during good behavior, and can only be removed through the impeachment process. The process of appointing a federal judge can be controversial. While the Constitution does not set out formal qualifications for the job, members of Congress and the President may have strong and conflicting viewpoints on who should be appointed to the bench. In this lesson, students examine the key constitutional reference to judges. They look at the general biographical profile of federal judges to learn about their career paths. They then analyze one of several statements made during Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's nomination hearing.
- Discuss what the Constitution says/doesn't say about the job of federal judges;
- Examine profiles of current federal judges to get a sense of their different career paths;
- Analyze statements made by a Supreme Court nominee (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) at her confirmation hearing to ascertain what are important qualities in a Supreme Court justice;
- Assuming the role of a Senate Judiciary staffer, research the current nominee's background to learn how to collect, analyze, and determine the relevance of such data.
Links to National Standards for Civics and Government
Content Standard III (A) 1. Distributing governmental power and preventing its abuse. Students should be able to explain how the United States Constitution grants and distributes power to national and state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power.
Content Standard III (B) 1. The institutions of the national government. Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the purposes, organization, and functions of the institutions of the national government.
Links to National Council for the Social Studies Standards
Power, Authority, and Governance
Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
Student Handout 1: Profiles of Federal Judges.
Student Handout 2: Excerpts from Opening Statement of Justice Ginsburg During Her Nomination Hearing Before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Student Handout 3: Senate Judiciary Committee Initial Questionnaire (Supreme Court)
- Before students enter the classroom, write the following excerpt from the Constitution on the blackboard or overhead projector and cover it so that students cannot see it.
" . . . 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 III, Section I, U.S. Constitution
- At the beginning of class, ask students to brainstorm what kind of professional preparation they believe a judge should have for the job. Write their ideas on the blackboard or overhead projector.
- Distribute Student Handout 1: Profiles of Federal Judges. Ask students to read the profiles and compare the background of the federal judges with their own expectations of a qualified nominee. Ask them to identify information from the profiles that supports their ideas and information from the profiles that may differ from their ideas.
- Reveal the excerpt from the U.S. Constitution on federal judges that you wrote before the beginning of class. Ask students what qualifications the Constitution stipulates. They should reply that there are no qualifications listed.
- Explain to students that even though the Constitution does not specify a particular background or set of credentials for federal judges, the nomination and confirmation process assures that qualified people hold the job. Remind students that the President nominates judges to the federal courts and the Senate confirms them. Explain to students that they now will read an excerpt from the confirmation process to get a sense of the kind of background the President and the Senate look for in a qualified nominee.
- Distribute Student Handout 2: Excerpts from Opening Statement of Justice Ginsburg During Her Nomination Hearing Before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Explain to students that this is an excerpt from Justice Ginsburg's opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As they read the excerpt, ask them to think about what the statement reveals about the criteria that are important to her and that she believes the Senators are looking for in a Supreme Court Justice.
- Discuss the excerpt with students. You may wish to use the following focus questions during the discussion:
For Justice Ginsburg's statement:
- Why do you suppose Justice Ginsburg spends time near the beginning of her statement discussing this country's pursuit of “equal citizenship?”
- How does Justice Ginsburg view the work of judges?
- What information in her background does Justice Ginsburg assume the Senators will be interested in analyzing? What might these aspects of her background reveal about her fitness for being a Justice on the Supreme Court?
- What kinds of questions does Justice Ginsburg say she will refuse to answer during the nomination hearing? Why?
Homework or Alternative Assignments
• Role play the confirmation hearing process.
A description of how to conduct such a role play can be found in We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and About Students, by Jamin B. Raskin.
• Distribute Student Handout 3: Senate Judiciary Committee Initial Questionnaire.
Ask students to imagine that they are on the staff of a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They have been asked to research the answers to the questions that the current nominee will be asked. Direct them to fill out the questionnaire to the extent that they can by using media coverage.