An Overview of the Justices of the Supreme Court
Updated: Jan 13
On the West Pediment, above the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court the words, "Equal Justice Under Law" are engraved. (Anna Sullivan/Unsplash)
The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. With its power of judicial review, which allows the Court to determine whether a legislative or executive act violates the Constitution, it often operates as a last resort for those seeking justice. The decisions made by the Supreme Court not only impact those directly involved in cases, but society as a whole. Thus, it is essential that the Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices represent the wants and needs of the people they act on behalf of.
This article will take a closer look at each of the current Supreme Court justices.
Chief Justice: John Roberts
John Roberts was nominated as Chief Justice of the United States by President George W. Bush, taking his seat in 2005. This achievement was preceded by an impressive political career: among other roles, Roberts served as Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan and Principal Deputy Solicitor General. As Chief Justice, John Roberts presides over the Court’s private sessions and private conferences. The ACLU states that “the chief justice's greatest power is the power to decide who writes the Court's majority opinion if, but only if, the chief justice has voted with the majority.” The majority opinion is a written document that explains the rationale behind the Court’s decision on any given case.
In regards to political ideology, John Roberts was the fifth most conservative justice for the 2019-2020 term.
The Associate Justices
Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George W. Bush, taking his seat in 1991. Thomas is the second black justice in history, and the only one currently sitting on the bench. He is also the longest serving justice on the Supreme Court, having served for nearly three decades.
Thomas is known for having the highest Martin Quinn score — metrics used to gauge the ideological preferences of U.S. Supreme Court justices based on their voting records — across the entire bench, thus making him the most “conservative” member of the Supreme Court by Martin Quinn standards. Most recently, he joined the Court’s other consistently conservative-leaning justices in a 5-4 decision that allowed the Texas abortion law to stand.
Stephen G. Breyer
Stephen G. Breyer was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton, taking his seat in 1994. Before serving on the Supreme Court, he held numerous government positions (such as Chief Judge of the United State Court of Appeals for the First Circuit) and taught at both Harvard Law School and Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. According to Oyez — a free-law project from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, Justia, and Chicago-Kent College of Law — Stephen G. Breyer has “cultivated a reputation for pragmatism, optimism, and cooperation with both political parties.”
Per Britannica, Bryer tends to vote progressively in cases regarding civil rights, but remains highly regarded by all members of the Supreme Court for his analytic approach to the Constitution. His Martin Quinn score is -1.87, making him liberal by Supreme Court standards.
Samuel A. Alito
Samuel A. Alito was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush, taking his seat in 2006. The son of an Italian immigrant, Alito’s ethnicity has led him to have sympathy on those he has viewed to be similar to him. For example, in Fatin v. INS, a case Alito faced in the U.S. Court of Appeals, the majority of the court (including Alito) decided that an Iranian woman facing persecution was eligible for asylum.
Although Alito is a conservative member of the Court, with a Marvin Quinn score of 2.05, his right-wing leanings sometimes encompass libertarian ideals. According to Oyez, “Alito continues to rule based solely on the case in front of him, unlike his conservative colleagues’ style of ruling based on an overarching theory. Even so, Alito tends to reach the same conclusions as his conservative colleagues.”
Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama, taking her seat in 2009. The first Hispanic to ever serve on the Court, Sotomayor was raised in the Bronx by her native Puerto Rican parents. After graduating from Yale Law School, Sotomayor worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, where she worked on high profile cases such as the Tarzan murder case and impressed her peers with her “deft touch.”
Sotomayor has the lowest Martin Quinn score, -3.48, making her the most liberal of the current Supreme Court justices. Accordingly, Sotomayor has joined the liberal majority on landmark cases: she ruled in the majority which upheld the Affordable Care Act twice, and in Obergefell v. Hodges, to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
Elena Kagan enjoyed an illustrious career in academia before being nominated to the Supreme Court by Barack Obama (later taking her seat in 2010). She taught at the University of Chicago Law School and Harvard Law School before eventually becoming the dean of Harvard Law School. Ever since writing a whimsical majority opinion in the Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment case, Kagan has earned a reputation for being the most knowledgeable justice on pop culture and technology.
Although liberal-leaning (with a Martin Quinn score of -1.69) Elena Kagan’s alignment with the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Court determined that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, surprised some. She had previously stated that she believed same-sex marriage was neither a federal nor constitutional right.
Neil M. Gorsuch
Neil Gorsuch was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Donald J. Trump, taking his seat in 2017; however, this occurred under strange circumstances. Democratic senators filibustered Gorsuch’s nomination after Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nomination for the vacant seat, was prevented from moving forward with the process after Senate Republicans refused to schedule a vote. In a first-time case, the Republicans eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, forever altering Senate procedures.
Despite this, Gorsuch was nevertheless well-qualified to join the Supreme Court, and continues to write “elegantly written opinions,” according to Brittanicca. Like his predecessor — Antonin Scalia — Gorsuch bases his decisions on textualism, which Ballotpedia defines as “a method of statutory interpretation whereby the plain text of a statute is used to determine the meaning of the legislation.”
Gorsuch has a Martin Quinn score of 0.84, making him a conservative member of the Court.
Brett M. Kavanaugh
Brett M. Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Donald J. Trump, taking his seat in 2018. Kavanaugh has impressive Washington credentials, having served as White House counsel to George W. Bush and staff secretary until 2006. Prior to being nominated to the Supreme Court, he worked as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often considered the second most powerful court in the country.
At age 56, it’s safe to assume that Kavanaugh will be a justice for many years. Although Democrats have strong feelings about Kavanaugh, with Senator Chuck Schumer calling his nomination a “drop of salt in the partisan wounds,” Kavanaugh has stressed the importance of abandoning political allegiances once one becomes a judge. According to NPR, “Kavanaugh is considered a pragmatic but conservative judge.” His Martin Quinn score of 0.51 supports that assertion.
Amy Coney Barrett
Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Donald J. Trump, taking her seat in 2020. After graduating summa cum laude from Notre Dame law school, she clerked for the late Justice Scalia and taught as an assistant professor of law at Notre Dame.
She served on the United States Court of Appeals for three years before being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Trump. The move garnered controversy, due in part to Mitch McConnell hurrying to confirm her before the 2020 Presidential Election. Although a firm conservative, Barrett replaced Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of the most consistent liberal votes on the Court, which caused further contention in the Senate.
Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in on October 26, 2020. She will have served as a Supreme Court justice for two years in less than two months.
Sources & Further Reading