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the rulings of Supreme Court justices could become even more critical as the nation and states move to toss out many outdated laws and implement new ones that still align with all our legal rights in this country.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.