The North Star’s Guide to Understanding the Supreme Court


On June 27, 2018, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court effective July 31. Shortly after, President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill Kennedy’s vacant spot on the bench.

Following the controversy surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct, an FBI investigation into said allegations and the vote on the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Senate voted today to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination to a final vote expected Saturday.

Blue Valley students are required to take either American Government or Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics — classes that cover the roles of the government in addition to the patterns of political processes — their senior year. However, many lack an understanding of the lengthy and confusing process surrounding the appointment of Justices to the Supreme Court before then, making it difficult to fully understand why Saturday’s vote matters.

In an effort to simplify this process and encourage student engagement in current events, the North Star staff created a guide to understanding how Supreme Court Justices are appointed and why their nominations matter.

How are Supreme Court Justices Appointed?

The Constitution of the United States divides the federal government into three branches: Legislative, Executive and Judicial. The Legislative branch, which consists of the Senate and House of Representatives, both of which make up the Congress, is responsible for making laws. The Executive Branch, which consists of the President, Vice President and the Cabinet,  is responsible for carrying out laws made by the Legislative Branch, whereas the Judicial Branch, which is made up of the Supreme Court and Federal Court system, is responsible for interpreting these laws.

Through the system of checks and balances, each of these branches has the ability to respond to the actions of the others in order to ensure no group or individual has too much power. The president has the ability to nominate heads of federal agencies. After making a nomination, Congress can confirm or reject the president’s nominee.

The process in which Justices— who serve lifetime appointments on the Supreme Court— are nominated is dictated by Article III of the Constitution which states that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Judges of the Supreme Court.”

When a new Justice to the Supreme Court is needed because of a vacancy on the bench, the president must nominate a new Justice, generally one whose political leanings mirror their own. After the president names a nominee, the name is sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. The Committee will then schedule a hearing, usually held a month after the nomination is received, to evaluate the candidate. At this hearing, the committee uses record and in-depth research on the candidate to supplement questions for the nominee. Following the hearing, the committee votes to accept or reject the nomination. This recommendation is then sent to the Senate where a debate is held and a simple majority vote of 51 Senators ends the debate and either confirms or denies the nominee.


Why do Supreme Court Nominations matter?

When Justices are appointed, they serve a life term on the highest Court in the nation. While on the Court, they vote on cases sent to it for review, and because of this lifetime appointment, they impact the Court’s decisions for decades by potentially shifting the balance of liberal and conservative Justices as a swing vote.

The interpretation of laws made by the legislative branch has the power to shift the political landscape of the country for years to come. Therefore, there is a significant amount of power put into the hands of Justices. But, the President and Senate have an equally important job in the appointment of Justices, and it is necessary to consider this when voting.