discussions that have been held of the various Supreme Courts found throughout
American history, one of the most pressing questions has been the current membership
of those bodies. Supreme Courts are grouped in historical terms by the identity
and duration of term of their various Chief Justices, but the backgrounds and
philosophies of the individual Associate Supreme Court Justices has also
exercised a decisive impact on American history.
In regard to the Supreme Courts
during which the sitting Supreme Court Justices began their service, most of
the members now on the bench began during Rehnquist’s term. They include: Antonin
Scalia (appointed in 1986), Anthony Kennedy (1988), Clarence Thomas (1991),
Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1993), and Stephen Breyer (1994). The Roberts court has
thus far seen two appointments: Samuel Alito in 2006 by the Bush White House,
and Sonia Sontamayor in 2009 by Barack Obama. The longest term of any of the
currently sitting Supreme Court Justices is that of John Paul Stevens, who
began in 1975 by appointment by President Gerald Ford under the Burger court
In addition to Roberts, the identification of the
current membership as conservative in comparison to previous Supreme Courts
rests on the consensus on Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito. In contrast to
these Supreme Court Justices, Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens have long been
identified with liberalism, while Sontamayor is generally thought of as a liberal,
though more in regard to past legal decisions and public statements than any
comprehensive pattern thus ascertained on the bench.
political identification of Justices, and thus, of Supreme Courts can differ in
practice from what might have been assumed by nominating presidents, in which
regard Justice Kennedy has been identified as conservative in nature but
sometimes inclined toward political decisions. The recently announced
retirement of Justice Stevens has raised a similar issue among commentators in
regard to President Obama’s proposed replacement of legal scholar Elena Kagan.
been identified in a broad sense with the Democratic, liberal consensus. Her
past decisions have also revealed a conservative streak. If approved,
Kagan, currently the United States Solicitor General, would be the
only member who has not previously been a judge.
As it is
enacted by the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the American judicial system
as a whole can be interpreted in theory as the least politicized section of Government
and the one most purely given over to procedural, essentially technical
questions rather than ideological and philosophical ones. A Federal judge
differs from members of Congress and the President in gaining his or her office
through appointment rather than election, and in that way is secured against
the shifting judgments of the electorate. Similarly, the right to a lifetime termenjoyed by members of the
Supreme Court assures that their influence over the judicial system can outlast
what are sometimes pictured as the essentially fickle currents of politics.
In practice, however, the
question of so-called judicial leanings of any given Federal judge have become
increasingly urgent questions over the course of American history. Today,
political and legal commentators commonly assign Supreme Court members a place
along a right-left political spectrum, and thus, assess their probable impact
on the judicial system.
The leanings of the American
judicial system in the post-World War II period, for instance, were typified by
the readiness of the Warren(1969-1986) courts to use the
judicial system to accomplish liberal initiatives judged too contentious to
enact through legislation, including Federal action against racial segregation
and the availability of abortion. The Rehnquist(1986-2003) and Roberts(2003-present) courts, by
contrast, have been seen as more conservative in their judicial leanings and
linked to the general rightward shift some commentators believe has occurred in
American politics as a whole.
The specific nature of the duties required by the
judicial system means that the liberalism or conservatism of any given Federal
judge will likely operate differently than it would in the legislative or
executive branch. For all of the importance placed on the nomination or defeat
of candidates for Federal Justice on the Supreme Court, Democrats and
Republicans do not formally endorse their favored choice.
theoretical questions arising from the American judicial system may carry
implications for the nation as a whole, they do not refer ultimately to the
desires of interest groups or other common sources for legislative action, but
rather to Constitutional interpretation. In this sense, the ideological split
in Supreme Court decisions, though present, has been generally observed to
occur with far less consistency than is the case in Congressional votes. The
question of the judicial leanings of a Federal judge in this sense can be a
more nuanced question than it is in regard to legislators.