Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In Order to Establish Justice

Even though July 4th is over, we certainly don't stop being Americans with civic responsibilities on July 5th! Let's keep exploring the history and structure of the U.S. government together...

The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot lately, with the nomination of Elena Kagan to replace retiring justice John Paul Stevens.

Although the Internet is rife with commentary, and you could easily jump ahead to the rhetoric, it's a great opportunity to stop and ask a few basic questions about the process itself.

How is a justice nominated? The Georgetown Law Library has a handy guide to the nomination process:
  1. The President usually will consult with Senators before announcing a nomination.
  2. When the President nominates a candidate, the nomination is sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.
  3. The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the nominee. The Committee usually takes a month to collect and receive all necessary records, from the FBI and other sources, about the nominee and for the nominee to be prepared for the hearings.
  4. During the hearings, witnesses, both supporting and opposing the nomination, present their views. Senators question the nominee on his or her qualifications, judgment, and philosophy.
  5. The Judiciary Committee then votes on the nomination and sends its recommendation (that it be confirmed, that it be rejected, or with no recommendation) to the full Senate.
  6. The full Senate debates the nomination.
  7. The Senate rules allow unlimited debate (a practice known as filibustering). To end the debate, it requires the votes of 3/5 of the Senate or 60 senators (known as the cloture vote).
  8. When the debate ends, the Senate votes on the nomination. A simple majority of the Senators present and voting is required for the judicial nominee to be confirmed. If there is a tie, the Vice President who also presides over the Senate casts the deciding vote.
What is the basis in the Constitution? This process takes place in order to fulfill Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which says the President "shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ... Judges of the Supreme Court..." (U.S. Const. art. 2 § 2, cl. 2.)

Who are the current and past Supreme Court justices? You can track the terms of Supreme Court justices, including the presidents who nominated them, on a timeline from the Supreme Court website,

What happens once a justice is appointed? Supreme Court justices must take two separate oaths, a constitutional oath and a judicial oath, before they can begin to serve. The oaths are available here, along with information about historical changes to the wording.

The great part about learning is that one question leads to another: How does the President choose his nominee? What is the most important quality a justice should have? What are the potential flaws of this system of appointment? How should the Constitution be interpreted?

Now it's your turn! I hope you'll enjoy wrestling through these inquiries into the nature of American government with your family today!

Keep your eyes on my blog for periodic snippets of history and trivia about the workings of the U.S. government.

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