US Supreme Court: Composition, Appointment, Condition of Services and Impeachment

By | May 21, 2021
US Supreme Court: Composition

Last Updated on by Admin LB

The US Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the United States of America. In this article, we have gathered detailed information on the Supreme Court of the United States, in particular its composition, appointment procedure, condition of services, and circumstances under which a judge can be impeached.

I. Introduction

The Supreme Court of the United States is the apex judicial body in the U.S which leads their federal judiciary. Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution establishes the Supreme Court of the United States. The court sits in Washington, D.C. in the United States Supreme Court building. Notably, the US Supreme Court is primarily an appellate court, but it has original jurisdiction over a small range of cases.

Although the establishment of the Supreme Court was explicitly recognized in Article III of the Constitution of the United States, it was not formally established until the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789 and was not organized until 1790. Though the size and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court have changed over time, it certainly has two essential functions to fulfil:

  • acting as the final interpreter of state and federal law; and
  • Establishing procedural rules for the federal courts.

Article III of the U.S Constitution establishes the federal judiciary. Article III, Section I states that “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”[1] Article III, Section II of the Constitution establishes the jurisdiction (legal ability to hear a case) of the Supreme Court.

The Constitution of the United States provides that the U.S. Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction to try a case. Original jurisdiction means that the U.S Supreme Court is the first, and only, court to hear a case, however, the Constitution has put a certain limitation on original jurisdiction of the court and states it will entertain only those cases that involve disputes between the states or disputes arising among ambassadors and other high-ranking ministers.

On the other hand, the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court suggests the court’s authority to review the decisions of lower courts. Notably, most of the cases the Supreme Court hears are appeals from lower courts.

II. Composition of the US Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court, sometimes also called the High Court comprises the Chief Justice of the United States along with eight Associate Justices, who are nominated by the U.S President and appointed upon the advice and consent of the majority vote of the Senate.[2]

Once the chief justice and other associate judges are appointed, they lead an effective life tenure and serving “during good behaviour” and they may not be removed from the office except by the process of congressional impeachment. Because of this provision, many of the Supreme Court judges have remained on the bench into their eighties.  Therefore, the tenure of U.S Supreme Court Justices gets terminated only upon the death, retirement, resignation, or their conviction on impeachment.

Initially, in 1789, the Supreme Court consisted only of six members, which was later increased to seven in the year 1807. In 1837, the membership with an eighth and ninth justice was added, and later in 1863, the total number rose to ten. Finally, in 1869, Congress reduced the number of membership in the court to eight with the view to prevent, President Andrew Johnson from appointing anyone and since then the court has been consisting of nine justices.

In 1937, again a modern attempt to alter the composition of the court was made when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court by adding justices who had more sympathy to his political ideals.

Between 1935 and 1937, the court struck down as unconstitutional numerous parts of Roosevelt’s new deal program that attempted to regulate the national economy of the country. Most of the conservative judges who voted against the passage of new deal statutes were above 70 years of age.

Consequently, the president proposed that the Supreme Court judges should be allowed to retire at 70 years of age with full pay and any judge, who would decline this offer, would be forced to have an assistant with full voting rights. This attempt of President Roosevelt met with hostility by democrats and republicans and got ultimately rejected as an act of political interference.

It is to note that when the office of Chief Justice remains vacant, the President has the power to choose a new chief justice from among the associate justices but this power is discretionary and he may choose not to do so. In the case where the Chief Justice is not able to discharge his or her duties or if the office remains vacant, that associate justice who has been on the bench the longest will perform the duty of the Chief Justice.

The U.S. Supreme Court can take official action with the participation of a minimum of six members in deliberation, however, in extremely important cases; it might get postponed until all the nine justices on the bench do not participate.

III. Appointment

According to the U.S Constitution, appointments of justices to the Supreme Court and to the lower federal courts are made by the president of America with the advice and consent of the Senate, though presidents have rarely consulted the Senate before making a nomination.

The Senate Judiciary Committee ordinarily conducts hearings on nominations to the Supreme Court, and a simple majority of the full Senate is required for confirmation. When the position of chief justice is vacant, the president may appoint a chief justice from outside the court or appoint one from the associate justices to the Chief Justice position.

In either case for the appointment of the justice, a simple majority of the Senate must have given approval to the appointment. It is to note that the members of the Supreme Court i.e. Justices are appointed for life terms, and may be removed from their office only if they are expelled by the process of impeachment by the House of Representatives and convicted in the Senate.

IV. Condition of Services

The Constitution of the United States sets no qualifications or conditions for service as a justice of the Supreme Court. Thus the power vests with the U.S. president who may nominate anyone to serve, and the Senate may not set any qualifications or otherwise limit who the president can choose.[3]

V. Impeachment

According to the U.S Constitution, the Impeachment of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court is a fundamental constitutional power vested with Congress. Congress has the authority to initiate impeachment proceedings against the chief justice of the Supreme Court and there are two methods to do.

The impeachment in U.S. Constitution is detailed as a two-stage process that begins in the House of Representatives with a public inquiry into the allegations made against the concerned chief Justice. If necessary, the process culminates, with a trial in the Senate. Till now, only one associate justice named, Samuel Chase has ever been impeached and no Supreme Court Justice has been impeached. The House of Representatives passed the Articles of Impeachment against Justice Samuel; however, he was acquitted by the Senate in 1805. In 1969 Justice Abe Fortas resigned under threat of impeachment for alleged financial improprieties unrelated to his duties on the court.

[1] U.S. CONST. art III sec. I.

[2]U.S. CONST. art III.

[3] U.S. CONST. Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.

  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Spread the love
Author: Deepshikha

Deepshikha is a law student from National Law University, Odisha.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.