Are you a fan of power, the color (or absence of all color) black, and guaranteed lifetime job security? If so, the United States Supreme Court might be the perfect fit for you. Of course, the real question is whether you’re the perfect fit for it.
About 45,000 law students graduate each year in the United States. Usually twenty or thirty of them pass the bar. Actually, despite horror stories about the bar, seventy percent or so pass the bar on the first try, and most bar passers become lawyers. A select few become judges; even becoming a federal judge is incredibly difficult.
Every few years, a US Supreme Court justice retires or dies, and the President appoints a newbie to this awesome lifetime gig. United States Supreme Court Justice may be the single most selective position in the nation—after all, a B-movie actor without a college degree (Ronald Reagan cough cough) can become President, but the Supreme Court has crazy high standards. In fact, not a single one of them starred in Bedtime for Bonzo.
In a nation where self-esteem – even unearned self-esteem – is preached to children as a great virtue, it can be easy to feel as if you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to. To test that out, try to become a pro basketball player if you’re 5’4” and clumsy… or a nuclear physicist if you have an 84 IQ (hint: if you think 84 is pretty good because it’s a “B,“ this might be you). Well, becoming a Supreme Court Justice is probably more difficult than being a pro baller and a nuclear physicist at the same time, and you’re probably not that special. To start with, becoming a Supreme Court Justice means you pretty much have to go to either Harvard Law School or Yale Law School. All nine current justices did, except for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who started at Harvard, but then transferred to Columbia where she finished first in her class while caring for her cancer-stricken husband at the same time. Really.
After law school, most (but not all) justices clerk for a Supreme Court or Federal Court of Appeals justice, which is an incredibly hard-to-get position in its own right. Clerking is inevitably followed by years of prestigious legal employment, and one personal misstep can wreck everything. Ask Douglas Ginsburg, who was all set to join the Supreme Court until it was revealed that he had smoked marijuana. (He was discovered when he insisted on taking his oath on a Bob Marley album instead of The Bible.)
Supreme Court justices are insanely smart and accomplished, and nobody has really “snuck in” since Lyndon Johnson appointed former NFL rusher Byron White back in the 60s because Johnson wanted a Southerner on the court and liked football. White was known for choosing his clerks based on their sports knowledge, and he wrote the majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick, a case that set the gay rights movement back about a decade. Nice one, Lyndon!
The modern Supreme Court has been carefully selected by recent Presidents to feature justices from a variety of backgrounds. For over two decades, there has been at least one woman and one African-American on the court. Now, we have three women (one of whom is Hispanic), an African-American, and five white guys. In another decade or two, maybe we’ll get an Asian. (We nominate brilliant progressive legal prodigy Goodwin Liu… or Jeremy Lin.)
Supreme Court Justices are expected—with plenty of help from their clerks—to evaluate thousands of cases each year, choosing a precious eighty or so that will actually go before the court. These are usually cases that have broad legal implications or relate to areas of law that require greater definition. Sometimes, the justices feel an issue is so important that they step in and address it, even if it was previously tackled by the Court. An example is Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 case that ended racial segregation, reversing the 1896 decision in Plessey v. Ferguson.
Each case that is accepted by the Court features oral arguments from lawyers on both sides. The justices pepper the lawyers with questions and comments during this process (or salt them if they need to absorb any extra moisture), and when the lawyers are experts it can be an exhilarating display of legal ping-pong, as brilliant ideas and arguments bounce back and forth at warp speed. When the lawyers aren’t experts, it’s more like watching a pack of lions devour a wounded antelope. Which one of those two activities would you rather be involved in? Ping-pong, anyone?
After hearing arguments from both sides, the justices consult astrological charts and vote based on the alignment of the planets. Actually, they discuss the cases with their clerks, and often have the clerks write a first draft of the opinion. Drafts are generally circulated, and changes are incorporated based on notes from the other justices; this is part of an effort to build a consensus. After the justices make up their minds, a count is taken, and whichever side has at least five votes prevails. Both a majority opinion and a dissent are written. Then there are concurring opinions, which take place when a justice agrees with the majority, but wants to throw in his or her two cents. Trust us, judges have plenty of cents to throw around. It isn’t often they don’t have an opinion.
Despite the Supreme Court’s history as one of the three branches of our government and a venerated American institution, the Justices have come under attack from critics recently. Even President Obama told off the Court in his State of the Union address, referring to them at one point as “an unelected group of people.” Snap. This sort of comment from a sitting President is generally considered about as tasteful as slapping a foreign dignitary at a UN summit. However, Obama’s brashness is a sign of how opinions on the Court have changed over the past few years, as he took relatively little heat for his remarks.