Getting to Know the Nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices
In the United States, our democracy relies on maintaining a balance of power between three key branches: the executive branch with the President; the legislative branch, which is further split into the Senate and the House of Representatives; and the judicial branch led by the Supreme Court. The modern Supreme Court consists of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. These extremely experienced legal experts ultimately have the final say in the interpretation of the Constitution and laws in America. Presidents have the power to appoint new justices when seats on the Court — which are lifetime commitments — become available, although the Senate has the power to reject appointments with a majority vote.
By interpreting the laws of the land, the Supreme Court obviously plays a powerful role in confirming or denying legal rights and practices in the U.S. At times, legal decisions made by the Court have completely altered the fabric of life in America and the course of the nation’s future. Historical landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools, and Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement, the progressions of women’s rights and decades of social change.
In recent years, liberal court decisions have increased from 40% in 1994 to more than 50% in 2018, despite the Court’s current conservative majority. As recently as June 2020, the Court rendered more decisions with significant social impact. Bostock v. Clayton County officially added LGBT people to the classifications protected from employment discrimination in a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch. June Medical Services LLC v. Russo brought abortion rights back to the forefront of public attention, with a ruling that declared a Louisiana law unconstitutional that required doctors at abortion clinics to have hospital privileges.
The push for social change based on equality, tolerance and acceptance has never been stronger in America, and the rulings of Supreme Court justices could become even more critical as the nation and states move to toss out many outdated laws and implement new ones that still align with all our legal rights in this country. Here’s a look at the justices who will be in charge of making some of these key decisions.
John G. Roberts Jr., Chief Justice, September 29, 2005
President George W. Bush appointed John Glover Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court as its 17th Chief Justice in 2005. Prior to his appointment, he served in many respected legal roles, including Associate Counsel to President Ronald Reagan from 1982 to 1986, Principal Deputy Solicitor General for the U.S. Department of Justice from 1989 to 1993 and Appellate Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2003.
Roberts was born in Buffalo, New York, on January 27, 1955, and has two children with his wife, Jane Marie Sullivan. To prepare for his career, he attended Harvard College and earned his bachelor’s degree in only three years. He remained at Harvard to attend law school and graduated in 1979 magna cum laude.
In terms of his general political philosophy, Roberts leans toward conservative points of view, but he also believes the Court merely interprets laws that already exist and doesn’t make laws itself, which has led him to oppose the wishes of the Republican party on several landmark cases, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage a constitutional right, and National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and King v. Burwell, which upheld the constitutionality of different aspects of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice, October 23, 1991
President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 1991. Thomas’ career prior to joining the Court included service as Assistant Attorney General of Missouri from 1974 to 1977, Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to 1990 and Appellate Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1990 to 1991.
Thomas was born on June 23, 1948, near Savannah, Georgia. He attended college at College of the Holy Cross and graduated cum laude in 1971 before earning his law degree from Yale Law School in 1974. Married to Virginia Lamp since 1987, he has one son.
His constitutional philosophy relies on an "originalist" approach, which looks at constitutional issues based on the original intentions of the founding fathers, regardless of how life may have changed over the years. Known for his tendency to stay quiet and not participate in oral arguments, his 2019 Martin-Quinn score — an ideological measurement developed by the University of Michigan — ranked him the most conservative justice on the court by quite a large margin. Notable opinions he authored include Kansas v. Marsh, which upheld the constitutionality of a Kansas death penalty statute.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice, August 10, 1993
Appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg blazed an impressive trail in the fight for women’s rights on her way to a seat on the highest court in the land. Struggling after law school to gain a foothold in a career field dominated by men, she landed her first law job in 1959 as a law clerk for the Honorable Edmund L. Palmieri, a judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She taught at Rutgers University School of Law from 1963 to 1972 and Columbia Law School from 1972 to 1980. She concurrently served as General Counsel for the ACLU from 1973 to 1980, when she was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The oldest justice currently serving on the Court, Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933. She married Martin D. Ginsburg in 1954 and has two children. After attending Cornell University for her bachelor’s degree, she attended Harvard Law School before transferring to Columbia Law School to complete her LL.B. An unyielding advocate for eliminating gender discrimination, she helped launch the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1971.
In contrast to Justice Clarence Thomas, Bader Ginsburg focuses her approach to the law on the idea of a "living Constitution," which means she believes the meaning of the U.S. Constitution should adapt and change with the times. Also in contrast to Thomas, her Martin-Quinn score ranks her as the second most liberal justice, behind Sonia Sotomayor. She has supported many landmark decisions over the years, including United States v. Virginia, which allowed women to attend Virginia Military Institute for the first time.
Stephen G. Breyer, Associate Justice, August 3, 1994
President Bill Clinton appointed Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 1994. Breyer first became familiar with the Court early in his career when he served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1964. He was also an Assistant Special Prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force in 1973 and taught at Harvard Law School from 1967 to 1994. After 10 years as an Appellate Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Breyer served as Chief Judge from 1990 to 1994 before his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Born in San Francisco, California, on August 15, 1938, Breyer married Joanna Hare in 1967 and has three children. He attended Stanford University for his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Magdalen College at Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar before earning an LL.B. from Harvard Law School.
Breyer’s political ideology tends to be moderate, and he has a reputation as the most pragmatic justice on the Court. His decisions often incorporate an evaluation of real-world consequences as well as recognition of what the writers of the Constitution originally intended with their words. Breyer wrote the unanimous court opinion for NLRB v. Noel Canning, which limits the recess appointment power of the president.
Samuel A. Alito Jr., Associate Justice, January 31, 2006
President George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito Jr. as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court in 2006. Early in his career, Alito served as a law clerk for Leonard Garth of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit before becoming an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey in 1977. From 1981 to 1990, he worked for the U.S. Department of Justice as Assistant to the Solicitor General, Deputy Assistant Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. His last appointment before joining the Court was to Appellate Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 1990.
Alito was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on April 1, 1950. He married Martha-Ann Bomgardner in 1985 and has two children. He attended college at Princeton University, where he also participated in the ROTC program. While attending law school at Yale, he served as editor of the Yale Law Journal.
His political leanings are generally conservative, but he tends to evaluate cases on a case-by-case basis rather than applying broader overall conservative viewpoints to everything. This is particularly true if he identifies with certain elements of the case. His 2019 Martin-Quinn score ranks him the second most conservative justice on the Court. Notable opinions written by Alito include Mitchell v. Wisconsin, which allows blood alcohol tests on unconscious drivers without a warrant, and Husted v. Randolph Institute, which upheld Ohio’s methods for maintaining voter registration records.
Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice, August 8, 2009
In August 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court as the first Hispanic Associate Justice and only the third woman. She previously served as an Appellate Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1998 to 2009. Sotomayor started her career as an Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office in 1979 and then worked as an associate and partner for Pavia & Harcourt from 1984 to 1992. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, where she served from 1992 to 1998.
Sotomayor was born in the Bronx in New York on June 25, 1954. She graduated from high school as valedictorian and was determined to become an attorney, thanks to an inspiring episode of Perry Mason. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1976 from Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude. In 1979, she earned a J.D. from Yale Law School, where she also served as editor of the Yale Law Journal.
Based on 2019 Martin-Quinn scores, Sotomayor is the most liberal justice on the Court, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg coming in a close second. She dissented from the majority on the very first case she heard on the Court — Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee — establishing her bold intent to never back down right from the start. She has been a key member of the liberal majority on a number of recent Court decisions, including Obergefell v. Hodges supporting same-sex marriage.
Elena Kagan, Associate Justice, August 7, 2010
President Barack Obama also appointed the fourth female Associate Justice to the Supreme Court a year later in August 2010. Elena Kagan started her legal career as a clerk for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1986 to 1987 and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1987 term. After spending some time in private practice, she taught at the University of Chicago Law School and Harvard Law School, ultimately serving as the Dean of Harvard Law School from 2003 to 2009. President Obama first nominated her Solicitor General of the United States before appointing her to the Supreme Court.
Kagan was born in New York City on April 28, 1960. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Princeton University in 1981 and studied at Oxford for two years to earn a Master of Philosophy. She attended Harvard Law School and earned her J.D. in 1986.
Like Ginsburg and Sotomayor, Kagan’s political philosophy tends to lean toward the liberal side. She sided with the majority in several recent landmark cases, including King v. Burwell supporting the Affordable Care Act and Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage — a position that contradicted her opinion expressed at her confirmation that same-sex marriage wasn’t constitutional.
Neil M. Gorsuch, Associate Justice, April 10, 2017
The first Associate Justice appointed to the Supreme Court by President Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch was sworn in on April 10, 2017. He began his career in 1991 as a law clerk for Judge David Sentelle of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy from 1993 to 1995. After a decade in private practice, he served as Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice for a year from 2005 to 2006. President George W. Bush appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in 2006.
Born in Denver, Colorado, on August 29, 1967, Gorsuch and his wife, Marie Louise, who is a former British citizen, have two children. He received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1988 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1991. He studied for a doctorate in philosophy abroad at Oxford University, which is where he met his wife.
Like Justice Clarence Thomas, Gorsuch is a Constitutional originalist and believes the Constitution should be interpreted as intended by its original authors. Some political writers have characterized him as more libertarian than conservative, calling him a judge who is "willing to go his own way." In his short time on the court, he has sided with the majority on several important cases, including Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, which involved upholding religious liberties related to the Affordable Care Act.
Brett M. Kavanaugh, Associate Justice, October 6, 2018
President Donald Trump appointed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 2018. After graduating from law school, he served as a law clerk for several prominent judges, including Judge Walter Stapleton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit from 1990 to 1991, Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit from 1991 to 1992 and Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1993 term. He spent time as a partner in a D.C. law firm and then served as Associate Counsel and Senior Associate Counsel to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003. President Bush appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2006.
Kavanaugh was born in Washington, D.C., on February 12, 1965. He married Ashley Estes in 2004, and they have two children. Prior to earning his J.D. from Yale Law School in 1990, he attended Yale College to earn his bachelor’s degree.
Although his time on the Court just started, Kavanaugh has already authored two timely opinions related to the tech sector: Apple v. Pepper, which gives app purchasers through the Apple Store the right to sue Apple, and Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck, which determined a public access company isn’t subject to the First Amendment. His general political philosophy is on the conservative side, and many experts feared a shift in the Court to the far right when he was confirmed. However, his 2019 Martin-Quinn rank barely places him in the conservative range.