Justice Stephen Breyer to retire from US Supreme Court: What you should know about the selection process

In a letter to US president Joe Biden, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen G Breyer announced that he will retire at the end of the current term, which is usually late June or early July

FP Staff January 28, 2022 14:18:13 IST
Justice Stephen Breyer to retire from US Supreme Court: What you should know about the selection process

File photo of US Supreme Court Justice Stephen G Breyer. AP

In a letter to US president Joe Biden, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen G Breyer announced that he will retire at the end of the current term, which is usually late June or early July.

At 83, Breyer is the oldest member of the US Supreme Court. His retirement will pave way for Biden to deliver on his campaign promise of nominating the first African American female justice.

Breyer was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the court in 1994. Biden will be looking to nominate someone who could serve for decades to come.

Let’s take a look at how a US Supreme Court Justice is nominated, what are the qualifications, and what responsibilities they carry:

How are the Supreme Court Justices selected

Even though the Constitution places the power to determine the number of Justices in the hands of Congress, the Judiciary Act of 1869 fixed the number at nine. There has been no change to the number of Justices since.

Whenever there is a vacancy in the Supreme Court, the president nominates someone and the Senate votes to confirm the nominee, which requires a simple majority.

In this way, both the Executive and Legislative Branches of the federal government have a voice in the composition of the Supreme Court.

The president has the plenary power to nominate, while the Senate possesses the plenary power to reject or confirm the nominee.

Before a nomination reaches the full Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts hearings and votes to decide whether the nomination goes to the Senate with a positive, negative or neutral report.

The Senate Judiciary Committee consists of 22 US Senators, who oversee the Department of Justice (DOJ), consider executive and judicial nominations, as well as review pending legislation.

Once the committee presents its report, the full Senate considers it. Even though rejections are relatively uncommon, the Senate has explicitly rejected twelve Supreme Court nominees so far.

The president may also withdraw a nomination, most likely when it appears to him that the Senate will reject the nominee.

How long is the term of a Supreme Court Justice

The Constitution states that Justices "shall hold their Offices during good behaviour." This means that the Justices hold office as long as they choose and can only be removed from office by impeachment.

Breyer has been a Supreme Court Justice for nearly 28 years.

Who can be a Supreme Court Justice

The Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship. A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law.

Many of the 18th and 19th century Justices studied law under a mentor because there were few law schools in the country.

James F Byrnes (1941-1942) was the last Justice to be appointed who did not attend any law school or even graduate from high school. He studied law by himself and passed the bar at the age of 23.

How is the Chief Justice selected

The Chief Justice is also appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. There is no requirement that the Chief Justice has to serve as an Associate Justice, however, five of the 17 Chief Justices have served on the Court as Associate Justices prior to becoming Chief Justice.

What are the responsibilities of a Supreme Court Justice

The federal circuit courts of appeals and district courts are organised into 13 federal circuits and each Justice is responsible for emergency applications and other matters from one or more of these circuits.

For example, individual Justices may be asked to halt the implementation of a circuit court order, set bond for a defendant, or stop the deportation of an alien. Justices are also asked to act on applications for a stay of execution.

With inputs from agencies

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