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Since its establishment in 1789, the Supreme Court has had only 111 members, making it one of the most exclusive, as well as enduring, of judicial bodies. For most of its history, the Court was the province of white Protestant males. Only three women, including one Latina, and two African American men have served on the Court. Only eighteen justices have not been Protestant. Based on religion, the Court of 2010 differed considerably from the past: six justices were Roman Catholics, two were Jewish, and, for the first time, only one was Protestant.

Still, throughout its history, the Court has had a kind of diversity in that the members differed politically, geographically, and in their age, personality, and previous service. New justices were chosen in part because they came from different regions of the nation, and later a few were selected in part because of their religion. Indeed, in periodic breakthroughs an appointee with a controversial viewpoint or a different background has attained a seat on the Court. The first Roman Catholic was appointed in 1835, the first Jew in 1916, the first African American in 1967, and the first woman in 1981.

Race and gender remain prime considerations for new justices, but geographic diversity is now all but ignored. It was hardly noted that the relatively small state of Arizona had two justices in the 1980s and 1990s, while populous states like Texas and Florida had none. The appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 drew acclaim and some controversy because she was the first Hispanic to be named. Little noted was that she would be the third native of New York City among the nine justices.

There are no constitutional or statutory qualifications for serving on the Supreme Court. Article III simply states that “the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court” as well as any lower federal courts Congress may establish. Article II directs that the president “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the Supreme Court.” There is no age limit, no requirement that judges be native-born citizens—in fact, the Constitution does not even specify that appointees must have a legal background.

Nevertheless, informal criteria for membership developed quickly. Every nominee to the Court has been a lawyer—although it was not until the twentieth century that most justices were law school graduates. And over the years many other factors have entered into the process of presidential selection. Some of them became long-lasting traditions with virtually the force of a formal requirement. In the last decades of the twentieth century, new justices came exclusively from federal courts of appeal. By 2006, all nine members of the Court, by that measure, had the same background. All had served as judges on a U.S. appeals court.


Document Citation
2 David G. Savage, Members of the Court: Introduction, in Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court 1051 (5th ed., 2011),
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