What Is the Procedure for Selection of Federal Judges?

Federal judges assume their roles through a nomination process, which gives the President of the United States primary responsibility for selecting candidates; to complete the process, members of the Senate confirm the nomination. At any given time, as directed by the United States Constitution, 600 judges sit in district courts, while 200 judges sit nationally on courts of appeals, and only nine sit on the Supreme Court. Despite setting the number of appointed judges at all levels of the court system, the Constitution gives the President and Senate considerable amounts of discretion for selecting candidates.

Once appointed, federal judges serve life terms. Some carry out their careers for many years and even outlast the presidents of their appointments. However, vacancies sometimes occur during presidencies. Judges retire or resign, requiring presidential appointments of replacement judges. Although the Constitution gives the President and Senate considerable flexibility to choose candidates, it provides some guidance for selecting judges. As with other careers, presidents receive word of potential candidates primarily through recommendations.

Presidents consider several key factors when selecting judges to ensure a best fit. Factors include experience in the judicial arena, political inclinations (liberal, moderate or conservative) and party affiliation. With increasing importance, race, gender and ethnicity factor into judge selection processes as well. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall, the first African American male, to the Supreme Court. Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female Supreme Court judge, in 1981.