Since its establishment in 1789 by the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has seen 17 chief justices, and 114 justices in total. Many landmark cases have passed through the Supreme Court of the U.S., having set precedents and changed the fabric of society. One of the court’s early cases includes the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, which determined that the SCOTUS had the power to nullify a law set by Congress if it was in violation of the Constitution.
Over a century later under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the SCOTUS ruled in Roe v. Wade, establishing that in some cases, the right to an abortion is protected by the Constitution. The Supreme Court justices reconvene in October 2019 for the new term to hear cases rooted in federal employment discrimination laws, and whether those laws include protections for those who identify as members of LGBTQ+ communities.
The SCOTUS has been predominantly white and male since its founding. In fact, all but six of the court's 114 justices have been white men. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1981, and Thurgood Marshall was the first person of color to be appointed to the court in 1967. The current Supreme Court justices took different paths to achieve their current positions in the highest U.S. court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed in 1993, faced many challenges on her path to becoming a SCOTUS justice; she encountered sexism in her attempt to get clerkships as a female law graduate in the 1950s and received lower pay than her male colleagues when she taught at Rutgers Law School in the 1960s.
When Clarence Thomas was applying for jobs as a new law graduate, he found that some law firms did not take his Yale juris doctorate degree seriously because the university had been trying to fulfill quotas of African American students at the time. Sonia Sotomayor spoke out in support of Hispanic rights as a student and as a judge, and experienced roadblocks when she was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals due to Republican beliefs that President Bill Clinton was trying to facilitate her nomination as the first Hispanic person in the Supreme Court. She was confirmed to the SCOTUS in 2009.
Using sources including ThoughtCo, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker, Stacker has compiled an account of the educational and professional history of each current Supreme Court justice. Each justice’s background is divided into three slides, including education, early career life, and professional life in the years leading up to their tenures on the Supreme Court.
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Current Chief Justice John Roberts earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1976 and stayed on to obtain his J.D. in ‘79. In his undergraduate degree, he wrote a thesis paper on early 20th-century British liberalism. In law school, he worked as managing editor of the Harvard Law Review and as a law clerk.
As a new law graduate, Roberts clerked for appellate Judge Henry Friendly and William Rehnquist, whom he succeeded on the Supreme Court. In the 1980s, Roberts served as special assistant to U.S. Attorney General William French Smith, and then as associate counsel to President Ronald Reagan. While working for the law firm Hogan & Hartson in the mid-1980s, Roberts carried out pro bono work for LGBTQ+ rights activists and prepped arguments for the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, which involved sexual orientation as related to state law.
In 1989, Roberts took on the role of principal deputy solicitor general under President George H. W. Bush. After three years as solicitor general, he returned to practicing law privately and taught law at Georgetown University. He was part of the team of lawyers that advised Gov. Jeb Bush during the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida.
In 2001, Roberts was nominated to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (D.C. Circuit) but was not confirmed until 2003 due to disagreements between the Bush administration and the majority Democratic Senate. As a Supreme Court judge, Roberts ruled over several significant cases, including Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which was a question of the legal validity of military tribunals.
In 2005, President George W. Bush initially nominated Roberts to the Supreme Court to fill the shoes of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had retired. However, upon the death of William Rehnquist later that year, Bush renominated Roberts to the role of chief justice. Regarding his judicial philosophy, Roberts likened judges to baseball umpires, saying "it's my job to call the balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat."
The most recently confirmed Supreme Court justice received both his B.A. and J.D. from Yale, the latter in 1990. During his time at Yale Law School, Kavanaugh was an editor for the Yale Law Journal. He reportedly said during his law school confirmation hearing testimony, "I got into Yale Law School. That's the number-one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college."
In his early years in law, Kavanaugh worked as a clerk for judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the Third and Ninth Circuits. In the early 1990s, he completed a year-long fellowship with U.S. solicitor general at the time, Ken Starr, with whom he returned to work years later as an associate counselor in the Office of the Independent Counsel. In this role, Kavanaugh helmed the writing of the 1998 Starr Report to Congress, which detailed the scandal involving Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
In late 2000, Kavanaugh became part of George W. Bush’s legal team that strove to stop the recount of Florida ballots in the controversial 2000 presidential election between Bush and Al Gore. From 2003 to 06, he worked as assistant to President George W. Bush and White House Staff Secretary.
In 2003, President Bush nominated Kavanaugh to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, but his confirmation was delayed for three years because Senatorial Democrats believed him to be too biased. Kavanaugh asserted his conservative views on a host of important issues, including abortion and employment discrimination, throughout his 12 years as a judge on the appeals court.
Following Donald Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in July 2018, Christine Blasey Ford publicly stated that Kavanaugh had sexually molested her when they were in high school. During Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in September 2018, Kavanaugh vehemently denied the allegations. After an FBI investigation yielded no substantial evidence to validate Ford’s claim, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh in a 50-48 vote on Oct. 6, 2018.
Samuel Alito graduated from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1972. He then received his law degree from Yale in 1975, where he was editor of the Yale Law Journal. While at Princeton, Alito chaired a 1971 student conference called “The Boundaries of Privacy in American Society,” which, among other things, called for a statute and a court to govern national security surveillance, elimination of discrimination against gay people in hiring processes, and the decriminalization of sodomy. The extent to which the conference agenda mirrors Alito’s personal convictions is unknown.
After graduating from law school, Alito clerked under Judge Leonard Garth in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. From the early to mid-1980s, he worked as Deputy Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Rex E. Lee, under whom he argued 12 cases for the federal government in the Supreme Court. From 1987 to 1990, Alito served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, appointed by Ronald Reagan. In this role, he successfully prosecuted the 1988 case of an FBI agent who was shot in the field and prosecuted a sympathizer of the Japanese Red Army who was found with homemade bombs in his car at a New Jersey Turnpik service center.
From 1990 until his nomination to the Supreme Court, Alito worked as a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Although broadly conservative in his judicial approach, he handled rulings on each case differently.
As the son of an Italian immigrant, Alito was understanding of the issues of people he found similar to himself, exemplified in the case of Fatin v. INS, in which an Iranian woman was seeking asylum. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated Alito to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, and he was confirmed the following year. Alito still rules based on the case at hand, though he frequently veers on the side of conservatism.
Before Stephen Breyer graduated from Harvard Law School with an LL.B. (a bachelor of laws degree) in 1964, he earned a bachelor of arts in philosophy from Stanford in ‘59, and studied philosophy, politics, and economics as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford’s Magdalen College. While at Harvard, Breyer worked as an editor for the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude.
In 1964, Breyer clerked for Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg and later worked in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as a special assistant to the assistant attorney general. In 1967 he began teaching at his alma mater, Harvard Law School, and later worked as an assistant prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force in 1973.
He served as special counsel, and later as chief counsel, to the Administrative Practices Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He collaborated with the committee’s chairman Edward M. Kennedy to execute the Airline Deregulation Act.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Breyer to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, where he later served as chief judge from 1990 to 1994. As a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1985 to 1989, Breyer played an instrumental part in reshaping criminal sentencing procedures on the federal level, as well as creating the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
Following the retirement of Harry Blackmun, President Bill Clinton nominated Breyer to the position of associate justice of the Supreme Court in 1994. He was confirmed the same year. As a Supreme Court judge, Breyer maintains a pragmatic approach to law, and looks to "purpose and consequences" in interpreting laws. He has uniformly voted to support abortion rights and has largely deferred to Congress, hardly ever voting to reverse congressional legislation.
This second ever female Supreme Court Judge earned a B.A. in government from Cornell. Ruth Bader Ginsburg then enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1956 and transferred to Columbia Law School when her husband took a job in New York. While at Harvard, she was one of nine women out of a class of 500 men. Ginsburg was the first woman to serve on two leading law reviews—both the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. She shared the spot as first in her class when she earned her law degree from Columbia in ‘59.
As a young aspiring lawyer, Ginsburg ran into challenges finding a job because of her sex, but eventually got a clerkship with Edmund Palmieri on the heels of a recommendation from Columbia Law professor Gerald Gunther. In her role as a professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963, she received lower pay than her male counterparts.
She co-founded the Women's Rights Law Reporter in 1970, the first American law journal to center exclusively on women’s rights. Two years later, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which, in tandem with related projects, engaged in over 300 cases involving gender discrimination by 1974. She won five out of the six gender discrimination cases she argued between 1973 and 1976.
Prior to her tenure as a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from 1980 to 1993, under the nomination of President Jimmy Carter. During this time, Ginsburg frequently sided with her fellow judges, including conservatives Robert H. Bork and Antonin Scalia. As such, she was regarded as a moderate judge upon her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993.
President Bill Clinton referred to her as "‘a healer and consensus builder." At the time, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno recommended Ginsberg to Clinton. She was the second female justice on the Supreme Court, and the first Jewish female justice. Though quiet on some issues like the death penalty, Ginsberg has professed her support of a constitutional right to privacy as well as her opinions on gender equality.
Neil Gorsuch received his B.A. in political science from Columbia in 1988, followed by a J.D. from Harvard in 1991, and finally, a Ph.D. in law from Oxford in 2004. While at Columbia, he wrote for the Columbia Daily Spectator and co-founded an alternative student newspaper called The Fed, as well as the magazine The Morningside Review. At Harvard, Gorsuch worked as an editor for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy and was described as conservative amidst a student population of "ardent liberals," according to the Boston Globe’s Michael Levenson.
After completing a judicial clerkship for SCOTUS Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, Gorsuch practiced commercial law at Kellogg Huber, where he worked on securities fraud, antitrust, and contracts cases. In the case of Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v Broudo, Gorsuch communicated that he believed that securities fraud litigation is burdensome to the economy.
He also worked as principal deputy to Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he worked on civil litigation cases, as well as terror litigation related to President Bush’s War on Terror. Generally, Gorsuch is a constitutional originalist, which is to say that he believes that the constitution should be deciphered as it was originally written.
Before his confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice, Gorsuch spent 11 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. In this role, in the case of Hobby Lobby Stores v. Sebelius, Gorsuch wrote a concurrence—or an attempt to prove both guilty action and guilty mind—when the en banc circuit determined that the Affordable Care Act law requiring employers to provide their employees with health insurance that partially covers contraception violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Politically, Gorsuch supports a broad interpretation of freedom of religion. David Savage of the Los Angeles Times described him as "a libertarian who is quick to oppose unchecked government power." Trump nominated Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in February 2017, and while the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination, Democrats filibustered until Republicans broke it with a simple majority vote and confirmed Gorsuch to the SCOTUS.
Elena Kagan graduated from Princeton in 1981, received an M.Phil. from Oxford’s Worcester College as a Daniel M. Sachs Graduating Fellow in ‘83, and earned her J.D. from Harvard Law School in ‘86, graduating magna cum laude. At Princeton, Kagan was the editorial chair of The Daily Princetonian, and in collaboration with several other students, wrote a Declaration of the Campaign for a Democratic University, which detailed a need to retool university governance on a core level.
At Worcester College, Kagan wrote a thesis on “The Development and Erosion of the American Exclusionary Rule: A Study in Judicial Method.” At Harvard, she worked as supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review. She was described as being good with people and gained the respect of everyone despite divisive political views on campus.
In 1987 Kagan clerked for Judge Abner J. Mikva on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and a year later clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court. As a lawyer for the D.C. firm Williams & Connolly, Kagan worked on five lawsuits rooted in issues of the First Amendment and media law. In the early 1990s, she took a job as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where she published an influential law review article in which she argued that the SCOTUS should investigate governmental motives when dealing with cases concerning the First Amendment. Two years after she got her assistant professorship, Joe Biden appointed her as special counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she played a part in the confirmation hearings of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Prior to her nomination to the Supreme Court, Kagan worked as associate White House Counsel for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1996, as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, and as deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council. In the latter role, Kagan co-wrote a memo asking that Clinton back a ban on late-term abortions.
After returning to academia for a decade, Kagan was nominated to the position of solicitor general by Barack Obama, and became the first woman in the role. Though considered to be part of the liberal wing of the SCOTUS, Kagan veers on the moderate side. Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court in 2010, and she was confirmed the same year.
The first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor earned an undergraduate degree from Princeton, where she co-chaired the Puerto Rican activist group Acción Puertorriqueña. As part of this group, she accused the Princeton administration of bias against Puerto Ricans in their hiring process. In the same vein of Puerto Rican rights, she also wrote a senior thesis on Puerto Rican journalist Luis Muñoz Marín. In pursuing her J.D. from Yale, she was editor of the Yale Law Review and published a notable article on how statehood would impact Puerto Rico's mineral rights.
Freshly out of law school in 1979, Sotomayor landed a position as an assistant district attorney under New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. In the wake of rampant New York crime rates, she dealt with substantial caseloads including shoplifting, police brutality, and murder. In terms of serious felonies, Sotomayor said, "No matter how liberal I am, I am still outraged by crimes of violence," especially for violent crime within the Hispanic community.
In her role as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, she took anti-government stances in numerous cases and was known for administering heavy sentences in criminal cases. In the notable case Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc., Sotomayor’s preliminary injunction against Major League Baseball barred it from executing a new collective bargaining agreement, thus putting a stop to the months-long 1994 baseball strike.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated Sotomayor to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. However, Senate Republicans delayed her confirmation process because they believed that Clinton had an ulterior motive of positioning her for a Supreme Court nomination as the first Hispanic judge. Sotomayor was confirmed to the Court of Appeals in 1998.
As a judge, she was described as a centrist by the ABA Journal. As a member of the Second Circuit Task Force on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts, Sotomayor presented the annual Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley in 2001, in which she talked in part about the history of women and minorities who rose to become federal judges.
In the 2002 abortion case Center for Reproductive Law and Policy v. Bush, Sotomayor defended the Bush administration’s enactment of the Mexico City Policy, detailing that the U.S. would refrain from subsidizing nongovernmental organizations that perform or advocate for abortions in other countries. President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor to the Supreme Court in 2009, and she was confirmed the same year.
Clarence Thomas earned a B.A. in English from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, where he helped create the Black Student Union. He obtained a J.D. from Yale in 1974, though law firms did not take his degree seriously when he was applying for jobs. He cited that law firms assumed that he got into the program because of the law school’s increase in its quota of black students, and thus put less weight on LSAT scores and grades for those students.
After his admittance to the Missouri Bar in 1974, Thomas worked as assistant attorney general of Missouri under state Attorney General John Danforth, and was the only African American on Danforth’s staff. After changing roles when Danforth was elected to the Senate in 1976, Thomas returned to work for him in the late ‘70s as a legislative assistant focusing on energy issues for the Senate Commerce Committee. Danforth would play an important role in endorsing Thomas as a Supreme Court justice.
In the early 1980s, Thomas took on the role of assistant secretary of education for the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, and then as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to 1990. In the latter role, Thomas sought cases of individual discrimination rather than adhere to the commission’s habitual method of filing class-action discrimination lawsuits. He opined that black leaders were all talk and no action in terms of the Reagan administration’s shortcomings, and that they should have collaborated with the federal government to improve issues such as illiteracy and teen pregnancy.
President George H. W. Bush nominated Thomas to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1989, despite Thomas having said he did not want to be a judge. Nevertheless, other African Americans working in government backed him, including Secretary of Transportation William Coleman. In 1991, shortly after Thurgood Marshall declared that he’d be retiring, President Bush nominated Thomas to replace him on the Supreme Court.
Some civil rights and feminist organizations were against Thomas' appointment due in part to his condemnation of affirmative action, as well as apprehensions that he might have been against Roe v. Wade. After Thomas’ confirmation hearings ended, but before the Senate officially approved his nomination, Anita Hill accused Thomas of verbal sexual harassment in a leaked FBI interview. In reopened hearings, Thomas denied the allegations and maintained his right to privacy. The Judiciary Committee voted to send Thomas’ nomination to the Senate, and after further investigation with no substantial evidence of sexual harassment, the Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court in October 1991.
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